10 Lessons the Orthodox Church can learn from their rapprochement with the Miaphysites

Posted on May 9, 2013


If the Orthodox Church can heal a 1500 year schism, they are indeed an ecumenical Church–but the Chalcedonian exclusivist ecclesiology must go.

Baba Shenouda, pray for us!

Baba Shenouda, pray for us!

In Nomine Patris et Filii et Spiritus Sancti, amen. Suscipe, Sancte Pater.

Since 1964 and before, the near-longest division in the history of the Church—between the Chalcedonian Orthodox and the Miaphysites, dated from c. 500—has begun to be overcome (click here for the timeline). This is indeed a historic moment and must be celebrated by all of Christendom, as no doubt the tears of our Blessed Mother have moved us to repentance and understanding. A number of lessons can be drawn by this rapprochement, however, specifically for the Chalcedonian Orthodox Church.

1.     Protestants can have a good influence on Orthodoxy[1]

First, it should be admitted that the Ecumenical movement of the Protestants had a significant role to play in encouraging and fostering the dialogues that have effected the virtually complete reconciliation of the Chalcedonian and Miaphysite Orthodox Churches. It is true that the vision of Patriarch Joachim III in 1902 and the epocal Encyclical of the Ecumenical Patriarchate 1920 began a new era for the Orthodox Church in the Ecumenical Struggle. These, however, would largely apropos western Protestant ecumenical movements and questions. The Orthodox accepted the invitation from the Protestants in 1920 when they wanted to plan for an international Ecumenical organization. This was the beginning of the Faith and Order movement which culminated in Orthodox-Protestant participation in the ‘World Conference of Faith and Order’ in 1927.

This later grew into the World Council of Churches (WCC) in 1948, of which significant portions of the Orthodox Church—including the Ecumenical Patriarchate—were founding members. Later, all the Orthodox churches joined the WCC—including the Miaphysites. As Yossa relates, “the ongoing participation of the Orthodox churches in the WCC provided a climate and a platform to initiate serious discussion of common causes.”[2] It was within the WCC that two visionaries from each church met and began to collaborate—Nikos Nissiotis of the Ecumenical Patriarchate and Paul Verghese of the Malankara Indian Orthodox Church (later Metropolitan Paulos Mar Gregorios of Delhi). This work with the WCC helped galvanize the Orthodox to meet together at Rhodes in 1961—and also invite the Miaphysites. In 1963, when the WCC Faith & Order Commission met, Swiss Reformed Protestant Lukas Vischer began working closely with Nissiotis and Verghese to eventually organize the first formal Orthodox-Miaphysite consultation in 1964, in which the bulk of the division was overcome in matter of days.[3]

Virtually as soon as the two church families managed to come into contrastive dialogue with each other in this century, it was realize that physis…was being used in different ways in our different churches.[4]

In matter of days a division and misunderstanding that had lasted nearly fifteen hundred years—almost sixty generations!—was viewed in an entirely new and promising way, almost resolved then and there. And this was due in large part to the encouragement, sponsorship, and support of Protestant Christians through the WCC. Moreover, can not the Protestant openness to diversity in doctrine (no doubt to a fault at other times) be seen as a strength in the midst of intransigent myopia holding tenaciously to old prejudices? Indeed, this very cooperation with Protestants has helped the Orthodox rediscover their own tradition more fully. A more mature understanding of the Church canons, for instance, has been brought to bear on mainstream Orthodox theology.

To view [Church canons] 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.[5]

To those still locked in the myopic vision of a ‘steadfast fidelity to the Fathers’ which includes an unbending attitude to follow, say, festivals, new moons, and sabbaths[6] even “in opposition to the stars”[7] themselves, these words are anathema. But to those who can distinguish those doctrines which “are of small consequence”[8] and those which are not. We will explore this further below. Suffice it to say here that

[The] Inter-Orthodox consultations, and the later meetings sponsored by the WCC, not only demonstrated successful collaboration between the two communions, but helped to dispose of a widely-accepted belief that Orthodox churches are unwilling or unable to effectively witness and proclaim the Gospel, through their respective traditions, in a modern and relevant way.[9]

The Protestant divisions, with all of their faults, have also shown an oppenness to unity in diversity that was, at times, tragically missing in the Orthodox Church at acute moments of religious and political tension. It is important that Orthodox are willing to see the good that Protestants have helped them overcome. This leads us to our second lesson:

2.     Reexamining old controversies does not mean compromising the Orthodox faith 

We think we are being Patristic when we are being the most zealous and unbending, taking up, say, the great diatribes of St. Cyril against Nestorius, but we neglect that current within the patristic legacy (found in the same St. Cyril in his later years [in his compromise with John of Antioch in 433]) which was peacemaking, open to reconsideration and reformation, for the sake of the truth and for the unity of the Church.[10]

The Ecumenical Struggle has helped Orthodox see that the Holy Fathers, while steadfastly upholding Orthodoxy, also loved their opponents, and were willing to compromise with them when necessary for the good of the Church. The attitude of the Holy Fathers has become more clear to Orthodox—renewing the tradition. For example, St. Gregory Nazianzus wrote of heretics

There is a separation between us and them, not only those who hold aloof in their impiety, but also those who are most pious, and that intended to bear the same meaning both in regard to such doctrines as are of small consequence and also in regard to expressions.”[11]

The Saint acknowledges that among the heretics are Christians completely innocent of heresy but through circumstance have ended up among them. This flies in the face of a pseudo-patristic phronema that seeks to brand every member of a separated communion as doomed heretics. Lest we forget, one of the greatest ascetics of our Church, St. Isaac the Syrian, is in fact not of our Church, since he was never in communion with the Chalcedonian Orthodox Church in his lifetime.

Taking this thought further, it is found that the persons condemned by the Ecumenical Councils may have not been as heretical as was originally thought. 6th Council couples Dioskoros with Eutyhes as men “hated of God” and Severos with Apollinarios as teachers of “the mad and wicked doctrine.”[12] Modern research, however, is shedding new light on these initially condemnations. It seems that despite the infallible authority of the Councils on matters of faith, they are less absolute to assert inexorable perdition as the fate of those excommunicated.

The churches today must see the significance of the decision of the Eumenical Councils in the confirmation of the Orthodox Faith and not in the condemnation of persons. Truth for essence of the Faith and love for the condemned persons should prevail in our deliberations.[13]

But this raises a number of troubling questions: are we not betraying the legacy of our holy fathers who condemned such persons? Bouteneff elucidates:

Although one would never wish to say that “we know better than the Fathers” in a qualitative sense, we also must acknowledge 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.[14]

The Ecumenical Councils themselves are received and reinterpreted “in the light of the demands of the church in order to discover the will of God according to the contemporary dimensions of the Church.”[15] This is the role of every generation to transmit the Holy Tradition and interpret it for the contemporary world.

We must approach the ecumenical council…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 coniliar 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 the evolving terminology, evolving church-political and geopolitical situations.[16]

Moreover, this reevaluation is by no means without patristic precedent. Besides the terminological compromise that St. Kyrillos (Cyril) made with and John of Antioch in 433, examples abound of the holy Fathers reexamining conciliar decisions based on new evidence. For example, St. Athanasios exonerated a group of Christians condemned at Serdica for holding that there is one ὑποστάσις in the Trinity. When he found out that they meant something different by ὑποστάσις than was known by those who condemned them, he felt justified in taking this action even against a council.[17] Again, Theodoret of Cyrus and Ibas of Edessa were once deposed, then reinstated after accepting the Ephesian Council of 431. Then in 533 some of their writings were condemned. As Bouteneff states, “the Church’s actions evolved as the persons involved changed their approach, but also as more information came to light… The monolithic and undifferentiated approach is neither helpful nor in accordance with Orthodox tradition.”[18]

At the same time, as Fr. Meyendorff points out, “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.”[19] These merits are emphasized within a context where “the spirit of charity, mutual respect and an openness to legitimate theological diversity were in short supply.”[20] No one can deny, for example, St. Kyrillos’ despicable behavior in using monks as shock troops and bribing the imperial officials. Nevertheless, his Christology is pristine and his willingness to make peace with his ecclesiastical and theological rivals outshines whatever faults may be present.

Now that this openness has been enriched by close collaboration, we see that

both the Orthodox and Oriental Orthodox recognize that both families of churches have maintained the Apostolic Faith, we can now also recognize that these teachers bore witness to the faith although they may have reflected different theological traditions and preferred dif­ferent terminology in their explication of particular Christological issues.[21]

This was recognized by theologians at the time, too. In the 433 Formula of Reunion stated that, in discussing the humanity and divinity of our Lord Jesus,

[some] theologians take some as common, as relating to one Person, and others they divide as relating to two natures, explaining those God-befitting in reference to the Godhead of Christ, and those lowly in reference to his manhood.[22]

And again, St. Flavian, confessing his faith to the emperor in 449,

we confess Christ in two natures…[but] we do not refuse to speak of one nature of God the Word, if it be understood to be one nature incarnate and made man, inasmuch as our Lord  Jesus Christ is one and same (Person) out of both (natures).[23]

Thus let no one claim foolishly that rapprochement with the Miaphysites betrays our loyalty to the Holy Fathers. As one of the committee members stated, “It is a sin not to be separated from heretics. In the same way it is a sin to be separated from the Orthodox!”[24] Or as His Eminence Metropolitan Damaskinos writes,

The ministry of the Unity of the Church is a witness to Faith, as it is constantly conressed in the Creed. Any quarrelsome theological disposition or dimished sensitivity at the prospect of restoration of ecclesial Unity, when there is an official declaration of full agrement on the right Faith, should be regard as unthinkable and certainly as reflecting a false understanding of the operation of the mystery of the Church in the history of Salvation.[25]

3.     The Church cannot ignore the political aspects of our controversies, which often obscure the positive contact

First, we need to come to terms with the reality of the role that nationalism played.

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.”[26]

While it is true that one should not overemphasize the role of nationalism in Christian division, the political tensions cannot be ignored. Theological controversy does not happen in a vacuum without social, cultural, and political tension. The violent actions of successive Chalcedonian emperors like Justin and Justinian (which Bouteneff alludes to above), attempted to suppress the Miaphysites, and only served to provoke them to greater and more deliberate resistance. Thus these divisions played themselves out in the context of an imperial power and the distinctive personhood of cultural idiosyncracies. Neither one can be abandoned, but balance must always be maintained between the integrity of the universal Church and the integrity of each particular church. Divisions within the Church have nearly always hinged on this faultline.

Secondly, the invasion of Muhammad and al-Kalifaat al-Rashidun nullified nearly all official dialogue between the two, since communication was suppressed by the followers of Muhammad.[27] Thus an official dialogue and reconciliation was made virtually impossible.

Historically conditioned prejudices, concrete ecclesiastical circumstances and practical difficulties made the raod to unity more difficult…the extraordinarily unfavorable historical circumstances in which these Churches lived did not permit a continuous dialogue in a synodal frame.[28]

Each side of the Chalcedonian controversy was becoming embittered by the harsh repression of the Emperors, but was still not fully resolved when the Muslim armies crested in the hills of Jerusalem and bested the Roman legions at Yarmuk in 636. As St. Sophronios of Jerusalem wrote at the time, that these invasions were the wrath of God for our sins, so it can be seen that our failure to reconcile was in large part the cause of our failure to defend against the onslaught of our unfortunate Muhammadan brethren.[29]

Nevertheless, both churches kept the faith, in spite of the rancor which had developed because of bad blood and the extreme difficulty of Muslim domination.

The severity of the historical clashes and the long period of isolation in exceptionally trying times perpetuated a spirit of theological confrontation, although it did not interrupt a common reference to the authority of the common patristic tradition to which both sides turned in order to find either the justification of their own or the refutation of the opposing position.[30]

And thus, since a common tradition was still drawn from, the spiritual life of each church continued to be alive and grow. Moreover, contacts did continued, and spiritual exchanges occurred, even to the point of mutual theological development.[31] Indeed, the Kingdom of Armenia, so long spared from Muhammadan domination, even participated in the fifth through seventh ecumenical councils. The encyclical of St. Photios (866) was also sent to the Miaphysites and received favorably, and the Armenian St. Nerses IV (d. 1173) carried on fruitful contact with the Romans in Constantinople until political circumstances pulled them apart.[32] But more than this, these limited official contacts represented the greater unofficial contact that was preserved and lead to mutual enrichment, which has blossomed in the modern dialogues.

This brings us to our third lesson:

 4.     Talking together with the opposing side can be mutually edifying

As mentioned above, the theological development of both churches were enriched even with the limited contact they had following the Chalcedonian tension and the Muhammadan take-over. After God quelled the political circumstances preventing contact, and Protestant Ecumenism spurred on rapprochement, the Orientals stated officially in their own conference in 1965: “We hope that common studies in a spirit of mutual understanding can shed light on our understanding of each other’s positions.”[33] This has lead to the historic conclusions we have stated above, and new closer integration of particular theological traditions. In 1987, shortly after the first official dialogue, the Joint Declaration of the Middle Eastern Patriarchs stated concerning the rapprochement that “We rejoice in realizing how much we have advanced in our rediscovery and in the growing consciousness among our people of the inner unity of Faith in the Incarnate Lord.”[34] Thus a common faith was strengthened by the realization of an “inner unity.” This strengthens the catholicity of faith and allows it to grow towards the work of salvation.

When the planning committee was meeting to organize the official dialogues, in 1979, a joint symposium was held on the spirituality of monasticism.[35] This symposium also began collaboration on common pastoral issues in the modern world. These collaborations were later expanded and developed at the Official Dialogues at Chambésy in 1990 and 1993.[36] The common faith then, blossomed into the real pastoral work for the salvation of souls, which, of course, is the purpose of doctrine and terminology.

The mutual edification, ultimately, is simply the union of fraternal love in Christ for the sake of the Gospel. As Middle Eastern Patriarchs in 1987 put it,

We urge our people to continue to deepen their consciousness in the deep commonality of faith and to relate to one another as brothers and sisters who share the same Gospel, the same faith and the same commission entrusted to them by their common Lord.[37]

Thus even without the unique traditions that each side can share with each other, the mutual edification from fraternal contact with other Christians is indispensable. In the midst of schismatic umbrage and cleavage in the Church of God, it can be too easy for the eye to say to the hand, “I don’t need you!” And the head to say to the feet, “I don’t need you!”[38] Instead, with the advent of mutual understanding, a deep appreciation and love has begun to be rediscovered among the Orthodox. This not only strengthens the catholic nature of faith, and leads to pastoral collaboration, but deepens the reality of brotherly love[39] which is the goal of the Christian life and the telos of the Gospel.

5.     Semantics are important, but not the end goal

This brings us to the true nature of the disagreement:

Theological research has shown that the problem was mainly terminological: both schools of thought used the same terms differently in expressing the divine-human oneness of Christ.[40]

Karmiris elaborates on this point:

Orientals condemnation of Chalcedon can probably be traced to a misunderstanding of the Greek-Orthodox dogmatic terms “ousia,” “physis,” “prosopon,” “hypostasis,” hypostatike enosis,” “Logos,” etc., which could not be precisely translated into the eastern national languages of the people to whom these churches belong.[41]

The Cyrillian language of the Miaphysites “is Orthodox; it is only its external expression and formulation which seem to remind one slightly of Monophysitism.”[42] It is simply expressed in Alexandrian formulation rather than Antiochian. To the Antiochians, it seemed like heresy, just as the Antiochian terminology seemed like heresy to the Alexandrians. Through mutual contact the reality behind the words have been discovered and been seen to be entirely legitimate.

This leads to a maturation of the Church’s mind (or rather, a renewal of Orthodox phronema) in regards to the use of language and its place in dogmatic discourse:

The church is not obliged to remain inflexible and to wrangle over words and phrases; it has the right to change them or to replace them with others. The only qualification is that the essence of the Orthodox dogmas, which in any case must always remain unchanged, may not be affected or altered.[43]

Our faith is ultimately not in the Nicene Creed per se, but rather to the reality behind the Creed. The words of the Creed, moreover, are a means to an end—salvation and the World to Come. That is the whole purpose and telos of words. Those who persist in a pharisaic obsession to the words themselves, strain a gnat and swallow a camel,[44] all the while dividing the Church of God and provoking God to wrath.

“Words should serve and express the essence, which is our common search for restoration of full communion.”[45] The essence is that by which we attain to union with Christ—which is ultimately ineffable and unspeakable. The saints use words only to guide us to theosis, the words are not theosis in themselves. Thus it is crucial that the words express the correct path to salvation, or the faithful will err and follow the wrong path.

The problem is with the pentecostal nature of Church linguistics. If the words are understood differently to different people, have they failed in their aims? Even with a universal terminology (such as the Nicene Creed), it must still be translated to individual cultures and engender diversity. This leads to our sixth lesson:

 6.     A Differentiated Consensus is what real unity means

The agreed statements (particularly at Chambésy) have affirmed that both sides can legitimately continue to use their own terminology.[46] Furthermore, it is accepted that the Miaphysites do not accept the Ecumenicity of the 5th through 7th councils (because of the condemnation of their saints, mentioned supra), but accept their doctrinal essence as Orthodox.[47] Thus a ‘differentiated consensus’ is accepted as unifying, placing emphasis on the faith expressed, not on the exactitude of numbering the councils.[48]

“Such a historic achievement in Orthodox dogmatics validated, perhaps for the first time, the concurrent use of alternate, thoroughly orthodox and traditional systems or verbal expressions in describing the same reality of faith.”[49] But through this, it is discovered that a that ‘differentiated consensus’ is the norm in the Church, even with a common creed. Bouteneff points out, for example, that even Armenian theology differs in terms from other Miaphysites.[50] Thus, a sort of Sabellian heresy of complete uniformity does not exist—and should never exist—in either church.[51] An exactitude in language is indeed possible for those who share a common tongue—the bishops perhaps, who are able to know Greek or Latin—but for the faithful, the terms must be in their own language at some point. Thus the unity between these different cultures cannot be more than a differentiated consensus which agrees in essence but is culture—exactly manifesting the love and unity of the God who is One Substance in Three Persons. To force all into a rigid confession of a single form is to subsume the integrity of the Son or Spirit into the Father and confound the Persons. At the same time, to say that terms need not agree in essence, is to divine the Trinity (God forbid!) into three gods.

Did not Pentecost use a diversity of terms—different languages—to describe the one faith of Christ? Let him who would force the Holy Spirit to act contrary consider the tribunal of Christ[52] and the terrible judgment that awaits those who blaspheme the Holy Spirit.[53]

 7.     God the Holy Spirit can preserve the Orthodox Church with internal schisms

With this spiritual renewal comes an awesome discovery that, despite being “separated from each other for centuries,”[54]

…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. It is this common faith and continuous loyalty to the Apostolic Tradition that should be the basis of our unity and communion.[55]

This was affirmed again and again from the initial meeting at Aarhus in 1964 to the official statements of Chamésy in 1990. It is now undisputable that the Miaphysites are fully Orthodox with those who inherited the Chalcedonian Orthodox tradition.

What this means is that God can indeed preserve Orthodoxy outside of the borders of canonical discipline, and we have only to come together to discover this reality (or not) in other Christians. One scholar stated that the Miaphysites still “organically belong[ed]” to the other Orthodox though their canonical status was schismatic and heretical in their eyes.[56] This points to the reality that God is the true arbiter of heresy and orthodoxy. It is remarkable to discover, for instance, that in the liturgies of the Miaphysites, the four adjectives of Chalcedon which describe the Incarnation (“without mixture, without change, without division, without separation”) appear.[57] Even across these barriers the foundation of Christian life was preserved. If we admit, indeed, that the Miaphysites have “from the very beginning” not in fact been heretics, then we must admit God’s Providence can preserve even those condemned by Ecumenical Councils.[58]

This dialogue and its outcome challenge us to recognize the presence and action of the Holy Spirit beyond our own familiar cultural and political realm, which we easily identify with the Church. It is demanding to admit this and to look with new eyes at our one-sided and ethnocentric convictions about Church history.[59]

The discovery is simply that this schism was in fact one not from the Church but within the Church itself. It was not a foolish misunderstanding, since both sides condemned the same heresy. They simply were unable to recognize the Orthodoxy in one another. It would seem that the Church, in both sides of this conflict, did conquer the heresy is question, and despite the failures, God saved both sides because of the faithfulness of the saints to the Tradition. This makes the division all the more tragic, because it could have been averted.

There is a common grief for the historical misapprehensions which froze the love and interrupted the communion of the two Churches, in spite of the fact that the consciousness of the common reverence towards the same apostolic and patristic tradition was clear … The church consciousness was constantly burdened by mutual anathemas which aggravated the open wound of the division in the body of the Church.[60]

Nevertheless, we can rejoice in the mercy of God who is oft-forgiving and compassionate to our weaknesses. We can rejoice, too, that God has shown us the way to unity.

8.     Christian unity is possible!

The historical disagreement has been cleared and the fullness of faith and spiritual life is being rediscovered in the other tradition. It proves that a conscious theological dialogue can lead to ecclesial unity.[61]

The method used—cooperative scholarship and fellowship—has proved true. The Commission was established by our bishops and has a very high authority.[62] It has worked through these issues patiently and resolved them. It gives hope to the rest of Christendom, since this is (almost) the oldest division in existence. Perhaps it is the first step to the full reconciliation of the Body of Christ. “Thanks be to God that ancient controversies and rivalries have given way to a new era of sincere and open dialogue and communal brotherhood.”[63] If we continue this approach, what more will we discover? But there are those who refuse to engage in this approach of mutual love and understanding.

9.     Mt. Athos isn’t infallible 

In 1995, the Holy Mountain issued a ‘memorandum’ which condemned the theological dialogue between the Orthodox and the Miaphysites.

It is well known that a hurried union is being forced upon the Orthodox and the Non- Chalcedonians in spite of the yet existing dogmatic differences and of unsettled ecclesiological problems.[64]

The theological method which has born fruit was denounced and accused and caricatured. “The theological Dialogue [is made into] a subject only for certain theologians, experts of dogmatics, who are quite indifferent to the disquiet of the pious.” This accusation is inflammatory, derogatory, and divisive. It dismisses the good faith of the participants outright, and creates parties of conflict in the Church of God, and stirs up dissension among brothers, which is something that the Lord abhors.[65]

The reconciliation is accused by the Athonites of being founded on “un-Orthodox presuppositions.” Instead, a different ecclesiastical vision is put forth, one in line with Cyprianic ecclesiology, without the balance of the other Fathers. The idea that the Church exists outside the Byzantine Church is denounced as a challenge to the claim that the Orthodox Church is the True Church.

Mt. Athos refuses to allow that an Ecumenical Council could err in determining the heresy of an individual (denouncing Dioskoros, Severos, and others as heresiarchs) and thus the conclusions of Orthodox theologians quoted supra represent “an unacceptable decision, alien to the sound mind of the Church, which offends the fundamental consciousness of the Church concerning the authority of the Ecumenical Council” and is a “a profound blasphemy against the Holy Spirit.” It is further condemned as a betrayal of certain holy Fathers “Maximus the Confessor, Sophronius of Jerusalem, Anastasius of Sinai, John Damascene, Photius the Great, Theodore the Studite, Theodosius the Cenobiarch, etc.” who deemed Miaphysites heretical, ignoring other patristic evidence to the contrary.

Further denunciations came against the reconciliation because only the condemnation of the ‘extreme’ monophysitism of Eutyches was required of union. The Orthodox expressions of the Miaphysites (used by St. Kyrillos) are castigated as “moderate Monophysitism” claimed to be patristically denounced as heresy, and should be purged from Miaphysites before unity. Thus the Athonites disallow a different terminology to express the same essence, confounding the Holy Trinity into Sabellian sublimation.

The ‘memorandum’ goes on to denounce the ambiguities of the Joint Statements as “expressions susceptible to a monophysitic interpretation similar to the teaching of Severus,” which need clarification, but since none was given, further accusations abound, and further dissension is stirred up. It is claimed that since the Miaphysites do not accept the ecumenical councils as ecumenical, we have reason to doubt their good faith, especially since the minutes of dialogues have not been published “for the people of God” (a phrase repeated several times which continues to create factions in the Body of Christ). The Theological Dialogue is also at fault, however, for working without synodal approval, and is thus questioned if it is a “scandalous deception in the information given to the people of God.” Finally the desire to reform liturgical books to reflect a new understanding is to Mt. Athos “extremely disturbing” and an exhortation is given

that the Orthodox will preserve for themselves the Orthodox Faith unspoiled but also for the Non-Chalcedonians, so that they will have the possibility of return to the true Church of Christ, from which they have been cut off for fifteen centuriesIn the event, however, that the union will come about outside of the only Truth—God forbid—we declare expressly and categorically that the Holy Mountain will not accept such a false union.

In the midst of this relentless upbraiding, one wonders if any of the monks of the Holy Mountain who issued this statement had talked personally to those on the dialogue, particularly the Miaphysites themselves. If this is not the case, one cannot help but wonder if the Athonites are committing the same mistake by refusing to talk and listen, as the Theological Dialogue has done, in order to truly “mutually understand.” One wonders too, how many monks see a great spiritual father in the Nestorian St. Isaac of Syria, and fail to make any conclusions about the work of the Holy Spirit outside of their canonical frame of mind. Further, one must question the very basic mind set of the Athonite fathers themselves—what is the purpose, venerable Fathers, of language? Is it an end in itself, or a means to an end?

In any case, we must, ultimately choose. The judgment of Mt. Athos here stands. No one can doubt that they will go into schism if the reconciliation is consummated. In that event, who will the faithful follow? Those who spoke to the Miaphysites face to face, discussed with them and shared common scholarship, love, and understanding? Or those who are on the Holy Mountain, cut off from the dialogues and can only read about them? Certainly the sanctity and devotion of Mt. Athos should never be discounted, but the reality is that it is not the universal head of the Church, and is not infallible. At one time, all of Mt. Athos was in schism because of the New Calendar. Now all of the monasteries (except one) has returned to communion with the rest of the Church. We must realize the real fruit that the ecumenical dialogue has produced, and place our trust in Christ. Any reconciliation is bound to provoke schism, and we must at some point be willing to do the will of God despite our intransigent brothers who refuse to see the Holy Spirit’s work. In this we also have a choice to make about what Orthodoxy is. Which is more pleasing to God? An uncompromising defense of terms, rites, calendar dates, and yeast? Or the union with Christ and the power of the Holy Spirit in every nation, tribe, and tongue?[66] This choice is at the heart of every Orthodox Christian in this time. This will determine the future of the Orthodox Church. As His Eminence Metropolitan Damaskinos observed,

The ministry of the Unity of the Church is a witness to Faith, as it is constantly confessed in the Creed. Any quarrelsome theological disposition or diminished sensitivity at the prospect of restoration of ecclesial Unity, when there is an official declaration of full agreement on the right faith, should be regarded as unthinkable and certainly as reflecting a false understanding of the operation of the mystery of the Church in the history of salvation.[67]

It is this faith we must hold to with our whole life and blood, holding before us always the “terrible judgment seat of Christ” which will render to every man according to his works.[68]

10.  We should be open to reconciliation with Rome

If we accept that the reconciliation with the Miaphysites is God’s will, we must further be open to reconciliation with our western brothers and sisters. For if God has preserved the Orthodox faith among the Miaphysites for some sixty generations, could he have done the same for our brethren in western lands? Indeed, already with the first meeting of the international dialogue in 1982, the Joint International Commission for Theological Dialogue between the Roman Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church stated that their approach to the dialogue would begin with common ground, in order to “show [that] we express together a faith which is the continuation of the apostles.”[69] This document then affirmed that in the epiclesis of the Eucharist, there is the fullness of Church, since there is only one Church of God, and each Eucharistic assembly and sacrifice is “not a section of the body of Christ…each Eucharistic assembly is truly the holy church of God, the body of Christ.”

Then in 1993, the International Commission stated firmly that

On each side it is recognized that what Christ has entrusted to his Church – profession of apostolic faith, participation in the same sacraments, above all the one priesthood celebrating the one sacrifice of Christ, the apostolic succession of bishops – cannot be considered the exclusive property of one of our Churches.[70] 

Should we not take these things seriously, dear brothers and sisters? Should we not pray to Christ for mercy and wisdom to discern the truth of these matters?

Indeed, in a large part the discussion is now focused on how the Papacy will be exercised, as it was affirmed by Ravenna that the bishop of Rome does possess universal primacy. It is a crucial issue, because it involves the universal ministry of Episcopal oversight. Nevertheless,

we should not fall into the trap of believing that all organizational issues must be formally settled prior to the solemn reestablishment of full communion… These resolutions to organizational concerns may become more evident once unity is restored and the “scandal” of disunity is overcome.[71]

Ultimately, as Bouteneff concludes in his essay on the Miaphysite reconciliation, unity is impeded by two things: complacency and fear. In places where there is little to no mixing with Christians of other communions (like monastic mountains, for instance), complacency is often prevalent. Where different communions have great contact with one another (in the Middle East, for example), unity is much more urgent matter, especially in the face of contemporary political crises. Secondly, we are afraid of unity. Unity presents a “threat to those who prefer the status quo.”[72] Moreover,

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 differences with the other.[73]

But we must take heed, brethren, to the words of the Blessed Apostle: the works of the flesh are manifest: enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy, and things like these. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.[74] These things crucify the Body of Christ. Let us repent of our sins, plead for mercy, and call upon the intercession of the all-Holy Mother of God.

This division is an anomaly, a bleeding wound in the Body of Christ which according to His will that we humbly serve, must be healed.[75]

This is the Ecumenical Struggle.

Placeat tibi, Sancta Trinitas.

[1] This essay is written to a Chalcedonian Orthodox audience, and thus I choose for my terms “Orthodox” and “Miaphysite,” which reflect the view point of the Chalcedonian Orthodox Churches. However, the author acknowledges that more proper terms are “Chalcedonian” and “Non-Chalcedonian/Miaphysite” or else “Eastern” and “Oriental.”

[2] Yossa, 97

[3] Yossa, 100

[4] Bouteneff, “Chalcedonians and Non-Chalcedonians: Realizing Unity,” St. Vladimir’s Theological Quarterly 42 (1998), 154

[5] Bouteneff, 160ff; emphasis his

[6] Col. 2:16

[7] Vladimir Soloviev, Russia and the Universal Church

[8] St. Gregory Nazianzus, Oratio 21, xxxv in Bouteneff, 168

[9] Yossa, 115 n61

[10] Bouteneff, 168 n20

[11] Oratio 21, xxxv in Bouteneff, 168

[12] In Metropolitan Methodios of Aksum, “The Christology of the Ecumenical Synods,” Ekklesiastikos Pharos vol. LVIII, (1976), 18

[13] Methodios, 6

[14] Bouteneff, 161

[15] Methodios, 5

[16] Bouteneff, 161

[17] Bouteneff, 161

[18] Bouteneff, 160, 161

[19] Meyendorff in Bouteneff, 163

[20] Thomas Fitzgerald, “Toward the Reestablishment of Full Communion,” The Greek Orthodox Theological Review, vol. 36, no. 2 (1991), 176ff.

[21] Fitzgerald, 179

[22] From John of Antioch’s Formula of Union in Methodios, 11

[23] In Methodios, 12; emphasis my own

[24] In Fr. Heikki Huttunen, “Orthodox Unity For the Life of the World,” in Chaillot and Belopopsky, eds. Towards Unity: The Theological Dialogue Between the Orthodox Church and the Oriental Orthodox Churches, 14

[25] Met. Damaskinos, “The Theological Dialogue between the Orthodox and the Oriental Orthodox Churches,” in Chaillot and Belopopsky, 34

[26] Bouteneff, 165ff.

[27] Damaskinos, 30

[28] Damaskinos, 30ff

[29] In a synodical letter without date, Sophronius gives an extensive list of heretics and asks, in the valedictions, that the following may be granted by God to “our Christ-loving and most gentle emperors…

a strong and vigorous sceptre to break the pride of all the barbarians, and especially of the Saracens who, on account of our sins, have now risen up against us unexpectedly and ravage all with cruel and feral design, with impious and godless audacity; Ep. synodica, PG 87, 3197D-3200A; see Roberty Hoyland, Seeing Islam as Others Say It (Darwin, 1997), 69

[30] Damaskinos, 33

[31] Damaskinos, 32

[32] Cited in J. N. Karmiris, “Unification on the Basis of Cyril’s Formula,” Greek Orthodox Review (1965), 62 and Damaskinos, 30

[33] Official statement of the Conference of Oriental Orthodox Churches held in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, 7-14 January, 1965 in Chaillot and Belopopsky, 35

[34] Joint Declaration of the Patriarchs of the Middle East, 1987, in Ion Bria, The Sense of Ecumenical Tradition, (Geneva: WCC, 1991), 117

[35] Yossa praises this as “a testament to the success of the inter-Orthodox collaboration established in the consultations” (111)

[36] Yossa, 120ff.

[37] Joint Declaration of the Patriarchs of the Middle East, 1987, in Bria, 117

[38] 1 Cor. 12:21

[39] 1 Pet. 1:22

[40] Huttunen, 12

[41] Karmiris, 61

[42] Karmiris, 66

[43] Karmiris, 73

[44] Matt. 23:24

[45] “Communiqué of the Joint Commission, St. Bishoy Monastery, Egypt, 20– 24 June, 1989,” in Chaillot and Belopopsky, 59; in Yossa, 117

[46] Fitzgerald, 175; Yossa, 123

[47] Fitzgerad, 176

[48] Fitzgerald, 176

[49] Yossa, 119

[50] Bouteneff, 158

[51] Bouteneff, 163

[52] 2 Cor. 5:10

[53] Blasphemy of the Holy Spirit means ascribing the work of the Spirit to Satan (Mk. 3:29; whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit will never be forgiven; he is guilty of an eternal sin.)

[54] 1st Agreed Statement; in Fitzgerald, 173

[55] 2nd Agreed Statement (Chambésy, 1990) in Huttunen, 14

[56] Johannes N. Karmiris, “The Problem of the Unification of the Non-Chalcedonian Churches of the East with the Orthodox on the Basis of Cyril’s Formula: ‘mia physis tou theou logou sesarkomene,’

[57] Huttunen, 13

[58] Damaskinos, 33

[59] Huttunen, 15

[60] Opening address of Met. Damaskinos at the 3rd official Dialogue at Chambésy; in Yossa, 120

[61] Huttunen, 16

[62] Fitzgerald 178, 181

[63] Joint Declaration of the Patriarchs of the Middle East, 1987, in Bria, 117

[64] Concerning the Dialogue Between the Orthodox and Non-Chalcedonian Churches: 
A Memorandum of the Sacred Community of Mount Athos, http://orthodoxinfo.com/ecumenism/mono_athos.aspx

[65] Prov. 6:19

[66] Rev. 5:9

[67] Damaskinos, 34

[68] Rom. 2:6

[69] The Mystery of the Church and of the Eucharist in the Light of the Mystery of the Holy Trinity (The Munich Document, 1982). Accessed at http://www.vatican.va/roman_curia/pontifical_councils/chrstuni/ch_orthodox_docs/


[71] Fitzgerald, 180

[72] Bouteneff, 167

[73] Ibid., 168

[74] Gal. 5:19, 20

[75] From a response given by Metropolitan Damaskinos to Pope Shenouda at the Anba Bishoy meeting; “Communiqué of the Joint Commission, St. Bishoy Monastery, Egypt, 20– 24 June, 1989,” in Chaillot and Belopopsky, 59; in Yossa, 117