|Orthodox Outlet for Dogmatic Enquiries||Ecumenism|
Author's note: In this short paper I am not going to try to give a comprehensive overview of the Christological controversies of the 5th-7th centuries; rather, I am merely trying to bring out a few points which are important for anyone who wants to approach the present discussions of reunion between the Chalcedonian church and the non-Chalcedonians with an informed understanding of the issues involved.
At the present time, it is being claimed that the Chalcedonian Orthodox Church and the non-Chalcedonians (monophysites) actually believe the same things with regard to the Incarnation of Christ, but that we express our common belief in different words. To understand clearly whether this is in fact true, we must be aware of the meanings of four key terms as they were used in the 4th and 5th centuries, at the time of the Trinitarian controversy (4th century) and the Christological controversy (5th century). These four terms are prosopon, hypostasis, physis, and ousia.
Four Key Terms
Prosopon, (plural: prosopa) had the basic meaning of face or countenance. Thus, it was also used to mean a character (in a play), mask, outward appearance or expression, role, an individual self or person, a particular individual, or a person in the legal sense.
Hypostasis (plural: hypostaseis) comes from the Greek verb yphistemi, which is a compound of ypo (under) and istemi (stand); thus the basic meaning of yphistemi is to stand (or be placed) under as a support or foundation. Etymologically, hypostasis is the equivalent of the Latin substantio (substance). In my dictionary of Patristic Greek, the definitions of hypostasis go on for 7 pages, but in general we can say that the range of meanings included the substance, stuff or material (out of which something is made); the foundation (of a building or of a line of reasoning); the substantive existence of a being, or also the one who has this substantive existence (approximating the meaning of person); it could be used as an equivalent to ousia (essence), or it could refer to a concrete instance of an abstract essence, that is, nature realized in a particular individual. As you will note, in this paper I use the Greek word hypostasis rather than the word "person"; it is only after Chalcedon that "person" becomes a reliable translation for hypostasis.
Physis (plural: physeis) could refer to nature as manifest in the physical world; theologically, it signified "nature" with the meaning of an essence with the attributes proper to it; thus it referred to a concrete reality, whether a specific kind or species of being (such as the race of men) or, more specifically, to a particular being with its attributes—as we might, in English, on the one hand speak of "the nature of men" or "the nature of God," and on the other hand say, "He is of a shy nature, while she is of an outgoing nature." It is helpful to keep in mind that, before Chalcedon, many people felt that "to be anything more than a mental abstraction a physis must be realized in a concrete, independent entity, a hypostasis" (Lampe, A Patristic Greek Lexicon, p. 1500). Thus, to many people, speaking of two physeis necessarily implied the existence of two hypostaseis.
Ousia (plural: ousiai) is a participle of the verb "to be"; it could be translated "substance" (as in homoousios—consubstantial), but still with a wide range of meanings: one's property, possessions or substance; the material substance out of which a thing is made; immutable, stable being, ultimate reality; a real thing as opposed to a name or symbol of the thing; the true nature of a thing or the possession of such a nature; the primary real which underlies all change and process in nature.
As we have seen, each of these terms could be used in many ways (think of all the ways we use the word "nature" in English). This could, and did, cause difficulties when the Church tried to express in human language the fullness of truth which had been given to Her on the day of Pentecost. For example, the word prosopon had a rather weak meaning for the idea of "person" — to say that the one God had three prosopa could be interpreted in an Orthodox way, but it could also be intrepreted in a Sabellian or modalistic way: one God with three faces, one God Who played the three "roles" of Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Likewise, to say that Jesus Christ had one prosopon could be interpreted in an Orthodox way, but it was also the way in which the Nestorians expressed their heretical idea that in Jesus Christ the Word of God was united to a specific man in a kind of moral union.
Another problem arose in the use of the three terms hypostasis, physis, and ousia. Although physis and hypostasis were usually used to refer to a concrete reality, while ousia usually had a more general and abstract sense, yet all three could be used interchangeably in many cases. Thus, in the First Council of Nicea, hypostasis and ousia were used more-or-less synonymously. In the theological language available to the Church in the 4th-5th centuries, there were simply no clear and obvious terms to express the theological ideas of "person" and "nature."
In the course of the Trinitarian controversies of the fourth century, it became clear that the Church needed more precise language with which to express the unity and distinction within the Trinity, and the three Cappadocian Fathers brilliantly solved this problem by narrowing and clarifying the meaning of these terms, expressing the unity of God by speaking of one ousia and the distinctions between the Father, Son and Holy Spirit by speaking of three hypostasis. It was not, however, immediately clear how the terms used by the Cappadocians in Trinitarian theology could or should be applied in Christology—for example, to speak of the divine ousia united with the human ousia in Christ could sound as though the entire Trinity had become incarnate. A clear and Orthodox way to apply these terms to the Incarnation still had to be worked out. And thus we enter the Christological controversies of the fifth century.
The Christological Controversies of the Fifth Century
At the time of these controversies, there were two main theological schools of thought within the eastern section of the Roman empire: the "Antiochene" and the "Alexandrian" schools. There were a number of differences between them, such as their methods of interpreting Scripture. For our purposes, it is most important to consider their different understandings of how our salvation was accomplished.
The Antiochene school was characterized by an insistence on the full humanity of Christ. Against Apollinaris, who said that the Word of God had assumed only human flesh, the Antiochene theologians were concerned to preserve the entire human nature, including freedom of will, of the Incarnate Christ. For them, it was the union and cooperation of the human with the divine in Christ which brought about our salvation — if Christ were not fully human, we would not be saved. Their shortcoming was in a weak or poorly expressed understanding of the union between the human and divine natures; taken to its logical extreme (and most or all heresies are an attempt to make the Christian Revelation fit human logic in one way or another), this led to the heresy of Nestorius.
The Alexandrian school, on the other hand, was characterized by a deep opposition to the heresy of Arius, who had held that the Logos was not God but a created being, although superior to humans. Thus the Alexandrians especially insisted on the divinity of Christ — if the Son of God had not united our humanity to Himself so completely that He made it fully His own, we would not have been saved. The weakness of this school of thought was a tendency to reduce the humanity of Christ to a purely passive element which seems to lose its distinctive humanness and to be absorbed into the divinity; the logical extreme of this is monophysitism.
St. Cyril of Alexandria, although fully Orthodox, nevertheless stood within the Alexandrian theological tradition. Because of this, and also because of his intense opposition to the heresy of Nestorius, he was especially concerned to assert the unity of the Incarnate Word. To do this, he picked up the phrase, "one nature (physis) of the Word of God Incarnate" out of a writing which was being circulated under the name of St. Athanasius the Great. As it happens, in the 6th century this was discovered to be a fraud — the work had actually been written by Apollinaris. To the Antiochenes, the phrase used by St. Cyril sounded Apollinarian, and in a way they were right; at the same time, St. Cyril (who believed that this phrase carried the authority of St. Athanasius) was interpreting it in an Orthodox way. St. Cyril's shortcoming was simply a certain imprecision in his way of expressing the union of God and man in the Incarnation—or rather, in his concern to emphasize the unity of divine and human in Christ, he could find no clear way of expressing the reality of the full humanness of Christ. His theology was Orthodox but his language was somewhat ambiguous. He did understand that the Orthodox view of the Incarnation could be expressed in other terms; in his letters he indicated that he also accepted speaking of Christ as having two natures, as long as that was interpreted in an Orthodox way. His preference, however, remained with the "one nature" formula, because he felt it was a better safeguard against Nestorianism.
We must keep in mind that at this point the word "nature" (physis) still had a rather broad range of meanings. All, both Alexandrians and Antiochenes, usually used physis and hypostasis as equivalent. The Antiochenes tended to speak of two physeis and two hypostaseis, in order to show clearly the fully-functioning humanity of Christ, but in this way they only had the weak word prosopon to indicate the unity of divine and human. The Alexandrians usually spoke of one physis and one hypostasis; St. Cyril used the phrases "one nature (physis) of the Word of God Incarnate" and "one hypostasis of the Word of God Incarnate" interchangeably. Speaking of one physis and one hypostasis, the Alexandrian theologians showed clearly the complete unity of divine and human in Christ, but they found no satisfactory way of indicating Christ's full humanity. It remained for the Council of Chalcedon to combine the insights of both these schools by separating the two terms and using hypostasis to refer to the one Person of Christ and physis to refer to the full divinity and the full humanity which were united in Him.
The Council of Chalcedon
As we have seen, the Antiochene and Alexandrian schools of thought each emphasized an aspect of the Incarnation which was absolutely vital for our salvation: the Antiochenes stressed the importance of a complete, fully-functioning humanity in Christ, freely and perfectly cooperating with the divine. The Alexandrians insisted on the necessity of a union between human and divine that was so intimate, so all-embracing, that the Word of God truly made His own the humanity which He had assumed. The Fathers of the Council of Chalcedon, avoiding the heretical extremes of each position, combined the best from both schools in the Chalcedonian definition:
The "breakthrough" of Chalcedon was made possible at least partially by the contribution of St. Leo the Great, Pope of Rome, who, in his Tome, drew a balanced and harmonious picture of the Incarnate Christ as existing in two natures (substantiae in the Latin original), united in one person (persona in Latin). The bishops assembled at Chalcedon carefully compared the Tome of St. Leo with the writings of St. Cyril and declared St. Leo's theology to be fully Orthodox. Dioscoros, however, refused to accept the phrase "union of two natures" or "...in two natures." He insisted on the phrase "union from two natures" or "...out of two natures" (ek duo physeon). This formulation had been used widely in the decades leading up to Chalcedon, but it had the drawback of being able to be interpreted in a monophysite way, as it was by Eutyches, who declared that he accepted two natures before the union but only one nature after the union —that is, when the two natures of Godhead and manhood were Joined in the Incarnation of Christ, they were united into one composite, divine-human nature. Dioscoros, in maintaining that the Incarnation was a union from two natures, not a union of two natures, denied that the two natures continued to exist, each preserving its own characteristics, in the Incarnate Lord. His position was decisively rejected by the Council.
The Aftermath of Chalcedon
Chalcedon remained true to the thought of St. Cyril of Alexandria, but in order to express this thought clearly, it had to abandon his words ("one nature of the Word of God Incarnate"). Large groups, however, refused this modification and insisted on retaining the wording of St. Cyril; these were the monophysites (from "mono" and "physis"). Because of their insistence on St. Cyril's exact words, some historians call them "fundamentalist Cyrillians."
Because the regions where the monophysites were in the majority were at the fringes of the Empire (Egypt, Palestine and Syria), and because the emperor tried to impose acceptance of Chalcedon by brute force, some historians explain the division between the Chalcedonians and non-Chalcedonians as being the result of political and cultural tensions. This is overly simplistic, as we realize when we note that the Christians in Syria were divided between Nestorians, Chalcedonians and monophysites.
It might seem more plausible, at least on the surface, to say that the difference between Chalcedonians and monophysites is only a matter of language — keeping in mind also that some of the monophysites were Syriac speakers, which led to the problem of finding adequate translations of subtle theological terms. Isn't it possible, some say, that the Chalcedonians are using the word physis in one way, and the non-Chalcedonians in another way — that they are simply using different language to express the incomprehensible mystery of the union of human and divine in the Incarnate Christ? If this is so, then we all believe the same thing but we are simply expressing it in different ways. This is the line of reasoning followed by the Chalcedonian/non-Chalcedonian dialogues of recent years. It seems convincing, but it is false, as we can see when we look further down the road to the monothelete controversy, the theology of St. Maximos the Confessor, and the 6th Ecumenical Council, as we will do in the final section of this paper.
Between the 4th and 6th Ecumenical Councils (451-680), there were many attempts at reunion between the monophysites and Chalcedonians. Some were regional; others were the official policy of the Empire. In some cases the attempt was made to blur the issues and come up with a statement vague enough that everyone could accept it and interpret it as they liked; in other cases the Emperor or the Patriarch of Constantinople simply forbade discussion of the points of division. None of these attempted reunions lasted.
In the present attempt at reunion with the monophysites, we see the same tendencies to blur the issues and to avoid mentioning points on which we disagree. Let us look, for example, at a talk given at the third consultation between the Eastern Orthodox and Oriental Orthodox theologians in Geneva in 1970 by Fr. Paul Verghese and printed in the Greek Orthodox Theological Review, Vol. XVI, nos. 1 and 2, 1971, pp. 133-143 (This talk is also printed in Does Chalcedon Divide or Unite?, pp. 127-137, under the name of Metropolitan Paulos Mar Gregorios, the name Fr. Verghese took when he was consecrated a metropolitan). The author, a theologian of the Syrian Orthodox Church of India, states that:
The idea expressed in this passage — that we hold the same faith although one group accepts all seven Councils while the other group rejects the last four — was also stated in several discussions during the 1970 consultation (all quotes taken from the Review, pp. 30-34):
Fr. Paul Verghese later made a statement in which he began by saying that, "In my mind it is clear that we do agree on the substance of the teaching of not only the 4th, but also the 5th, 6th, and 7th councils" and concluded, "I only wanted to emphasize the fact it is a really big stumbling block for us if the Chalcedonians assert that the 7 councils are inseparable."
The Importance of the Sixth Ecumenical Council
The vehement assertion by these non-Chalcedonian theologians that "Chalcedon is not acceptable to us" raises the question of whether they do in fact accept the faith of Chalcedon. The faith of Chalcedon was expressed in the definition of Chalcedon; if they cannot accept the definition, it seems reasonable to conclude that they do not accept the faith. Still, one might argue that they are only resisting a certain language which seems, to them, to have Nestorian overtones. The question remains, do we have the same belief about the Incarnation of Christ, simply expressing it in different words? To see if this is so, let us look further at the paper presented by Fr. Verghese, where he considers "the Sixth Council which appears to us badly muddled, not to say in grievous error" (Review, p. 137; Does Chalcedon, p. 131). Regarding the dogmatic definition of the 6th Council, he states:
It is surprising that the author of these statements could also say that "In my mind it is clear that we do agree on the substance of the teaching of not only the 4th, but also the 5th, 6th, and 7th councils" (Review, p. 34). The question of whether the will is attributed to the nature or to the hypostasis was a major bone of contention in the monothelete controversy and thus of central importance in the considerations and final decision of the Sixth Council. Although Verghese, in the Forward to the issue of The Greek Orthodox Theological Review we have been drawing on, states that "The meeting at the University of Bristol, England in 1967... eliminated the possibility that the Monothelete position was the one espoused by the Oriental Orthodoxy" (Review, unnumbered page), here he has stated a central tenet of the Monothelete position, namely, that the will belongs to the one hypostasis and not to the two natures. But if, as he points out, the hypostasis of the Incarnate Christ is the hypostasis of the Word, then there are two possibilities: First, that the hypostasis (person) of the Second Hypostasis (Person) of the Holy Trinity changed at the Incarnation and became a composite hypostasis with a composite will, as seems to be implied by Fr. Verghese's reference to the "one hypostasis who is now both divine and humane — but this is unacceptable to us, as we cannot imagine the Second Person of the Holy Trinity changing and becoming composite. Or, second, that if the will belongs to the hypostasis, and the hypostasis is that of the Word of God, then the human nature of Christ is entirely moved and controlled by the hypostasis (person) of the Word of God — in other words, the humanity of Christ is a purely passive instrument of His divinity, completely lacking in freedom and having no operation (energy) of its own. In this case, Christ's humanity is not, in fact, a freely and fully-functioning humanity; although it is still possible for the non-Chalcedonians to say that Christ is consubstantial to us with regard to His humanity, they clearly do not share the same beliefs as us with regard to Christ as perfect God and perfect Man.
The Sixth Ecumenical Council, however, is "far more than the dogmatization of two wills in Christ," as Dr. Joseph Farrell points out in his excellent study, Free Choice in St. Maximus the Confessor (St. Tikhon's Seminary Press, 1989, p. 191). The theology of St. Maximus is exceptionally broad, deep and subtle; in this short paper I cannot hope to capture Dr. Farrell's analysis of St. Maximus, but I will briefly mention some of his conclusions regarding the importance of St. Maximus and the acceptance of his theology by the Orthodox Church in the Sixth Ecumenical Council. As he says, the Sixth Council is the confession, not so much of two wills in Christ, but of His human will, and, therefore, of the voluntary nature of His Passion; it is also the confession of human free choice and of the necessity of the cooperation of the human will in our salvation (p. 191). Dr. Farrell also presents St. Maximus, and therefore the Sixth Ecumenical Council, as a major link in the chain of Orthodox theological development from the Arian controversy in the 4th century to the theology of St. Gregory Palamas and the hesychast council of 1351:
Dr. Farrell goes on to contrast the monothelete understanding of the sinlessness of Christ as a mere passive determination of the human nature by the divine nature with the dithelete doctrine of St. Maximus which "takes as its starting point not fallen humanity but the deified humanity of Christ and the saints in the eschaton" (p. 193), and points out that:
The Sixth Council is inseparable from the Council of Chalcedon, which it clarifies and interprets; it is my contention, therefore, that it is through their attitude towards the Sixth Council, as well as the Fifth and Seventh, that we can see whether or not a particular Christian communion truly accepts the teaching of Chalcedon.
Fr. Verghese concludes his paper by stating that if acceptance of the 4th, 5th, 6th and 7th Councils is necessary for reunion, there is little hope that that this will be achieved in the near future. But if, as some of the Chalcedonian participants had suggested, the last four Councils are not to be regarded as equal in importance to the earlier ones, he suggests that the churches "begin formal conversations with a view to restoring communion between our two families", with the first step being the issuance of a common statement which "should state clearly that we share, between our two families, substantially the same authentic tradition of the undivided Christian church";
In this suggestion we see the inclination to seek a dishonest intercommunion both by avoiding coming to terms with our points of difference — for example, the offer that the non-Chalcedonians would refrain from formally condemning St. Leo the Great, although Fr. Verghese has repeatedly stated that they regard him as a heretic — and by coming up with a statement of "agreement" so broad that all parties can subscribe to it, each interpreting it as they like. In response to this, we can say with Fr. John Romanides (Church of Greece), one of the Chalcedonian participants, that
+ + +
Article published in English on: 9-10=2010
Last update: 9-10-2010