The Ecumenical Statements: Hoping for a Fresh Orthodox Perspective
Exclusive to Pravmir
Edited by Elizabeth Iskander
After publishing two articles about my conversion to Orthodoxy, I received a number of interesting messages from readers curious to know more about the history and dogmatic reflection on the dialogue between the Orthodox Church and the non-Chalcedonian Oriental Churches. I also received requests for a further explanation of the current teachings of the Oriental Churches concerning Christology and the difference between the Orthodox and Oriental Orthodox understanding of the nature of Christ. These questions need to be answered with truth in love (Eph 4: 15), so I determined to write a series of articles in which I will discuss the development and problems of the Ecumenical approach in the 20th century between the two Churches. I hope that this will suggest a fresh and fruitful approach. In the next article I'll discuss the arguments of the Oriental Churches with our replies based on the historical and dogmatic track. Finally, I will discuss the implications of the Orthodox Christology in comparison to the Monophysite Christology on the different dogmas from the documents and teachings of the Monophysite leaders, in order to show exactly the dimensions of the difficulties and deviation from truth that the Monophysites suffer from.
In his recent visit to Egypt, Patriarch Kirill of Moscow expressed his wish to carry on the theological dialogue between the Orthodox Church and the Coptic Church, which is the largest and most influential part of the Oriental Monophysite Communion. Dialogue had come to a stop after 1993 because it met with a dead end. This was largely as a result of taking the wrong approach. The Ecumenical Patriarchate hosted the whole official dialogue and the co-chairman of the joint commission was Metropolitan Damaskinos Papandriou of Geneva. Until today, the Monophysite side hid the results from their people and has given numerous hostile statements against the Chalcedonian Churches, not only the Orthodox Church.
This dramatic failure was expected by the Russian patriarchate even before the official dialogue started in the mid 80's. The Russian patriarchate didn't recognize the Chambsey 1990 agreement and didn't include it in its official publications. Clearly, a number of factors combined together to push the whole procedure to this dead end. In order to avoid them in the new attempts at dialogue, we need to shed light on these factors.
Undermining the Church Fathers cannot be a solution
Before beginning a dialogue, the aim should be understood. The idea should not become an attempt to harmonize two different traditions, but we should help the other side to discover where truth lies in our divinely inspired teachings that have been handled via the Fathers and the holy Ecumenical Councils down centuries without ceasing to preach the same Gospel of Christ everyday with the same truth. This tradition is the base of the Church and undermining it could never be a solution. Strikingly, the 9th paragraph of the 1990 official agreement states that "both traditions maintained the same Christological Orthodox faith although they have used different terms" reducing the whole writings, councils and legacy of the Orthodox Church for 1500 years into what they called "terminological misunderstanding"!
Such a conclusion is undermining the whole Orthodox legacy and the credibility of the Church Fathers as if they built their conclusions in the four Ecumenical Councils regarding Monophysitism out of political motivations, ignorance or fanaticism. History gives us an entirely different view. The Fathers of the Church had the capacity to open a dialogue with a strong will for reconciliation, but the difference was illustrated when the Fathers loved to give the schismatics bread instead of stone (cf. Matt 7: 9). When Acacius, the Patriarch of Constantinople, tried to shift the basis of reconciliation out of orthodoxy and the acceptance of the holy fourth Ecumenical Council, the Catholic Church suffered a 35 year schism between Rome and Constantinople (484 - 519). This is exactly what Monophysite leaders want; a unity excluding Chalcedon and our Ecumenical Councils from its base as Shenouda III the patriarch of Copts said: "There should be no explicit reference [in the joint declaration 1990] to the fourth Ecumenical Council or Pope Leo of Rome for reasons of pastoral prudence". The Fathers and doctors of the Church expressed the Orthodox doctrine in Christ In accordance with the seven holy Ecumenical Councils. From Chalcedon in 451 until Nicaea in 787, the Fathers and saints had very long debates and written exchanges with the Monophysites. Even after that time, the Orthodox kept their dialogue with the schismatics even under the severe Islamic siege of Constantinople.
Historically speaking, whilst the argument of "terminological misunderstanding" is a recent innovation, there were some implicit references to the post-Chalcedonian controversies. Great scholars like Leontius of Jerusalem in his Aporiae and Saint John of Damascus in his treatises against heretics referred to such tricky approaches that aim to overlook the existing dogmatic differences. Saint Maximus the Confessor, who is one of the greatest theologians in the history of Christendom, faced the attempts of Severus of Antioch, a Monophysite heretic, to manipulate the words "nature" and "hypostasis". He considered this to be a sort of wickedness, while John of Damascus asks, "Why should one equate these terms in the domain of economy!?" But I will come back to this question in the next article.
Lack of the academic scholarship
This situation leads us to the following problem. The reader of the papers presented in the joint commissions will not find - whether in the unofficial or the official dialogues - a single study on Christology by any of the Fathers of the Church. On the Contrary, John Romanides criticized Saint Leo of Rome for giving Theodoret a chance to speak. He referred to Leo as the supporter of a heretic and said that, "Leo followed Theodoret like a pet on a leash" while Dioscorus by supporting Eutiches was less mistaken!
I was in the Coptic Church when I read his paper. This means that his words could have been taken by me as a victory and source of credibility for my Coptic faith. However, with humble unbiased search we can discover how his Anti-Papal motive, as he implicitly described it later in the same paper, led him to launch this harsh attack against one of the greatest doctors of the whole Christendom and how his approach lacks historical support if we carried out a fair historical investigation. From such a careful investigation emerges a critical question; do we have a Christological and historical study by St. Leo the Great presented to the Monophysites? Romanides failed to produce such an academic approach when he criticized Leo without reading him within the historical and doctrinal context let alone his mistake in claiming that he knows what Dioscorus meant by one nature , an orthodox meaning according to Romanides, while we have almost nothing survived from his writings! At the same time, how can it help the Monophysites when we overlook academic methodology? This is accurately described by Prof. Theodore Zisis who describes such an approach as "an unprecedented instance in Church history when the Orthodox Church rejects its own teaching to please the heretics". Regardless of the religious factor in the issue, we find a grave academic problem. Thus, I do agree with the paper of Prof. Zisis in his commentary on this un-academic approach where he says: "the bitter experience of the recent inter-confessional discussions leaves one with an impression that the members of Orthodox delegations lack systematic theological training, a knowledge of patristic writings and of conciliar resolutions."
On the other hand, I personally knew the co-chairman from the Oriental side, Metropolitan Beshoy of Damietta, along with the other members of the Coptic commission. Except Dr. Joseph M. Faltas who holds a PhD in Patrology from Athens University, none of the members studied Theology in any university. When I discussed those papers with them I was astonished that they hadnít even read the writings of their own Fathers, particularly the writings of Severus, since they didn't have a proper knowledge of the original Greek language. I had even to provide to one of them the letters of Severus, which have been recently translated into English.
In 2005, a Coptic delegation was invited to Moscow to discuss the project of moving on to a more successful dialogue with Russia. However, the disappointing paper presented by Metropolitan Beshoy led to a delay and reduced the interest in having a professional dialogue. There is a will now to carry on but under the supervision of the Moscow Patriarchate, which I'm quite sure will avoid the mistakes of the previous dialogue that led to this dead end.
In the next article, I will discuss the historical and dogmatic context of the controversy and explain the teachings and writings of the Monophysites that are used in Arabic now and totally hidden from the Orthodox side. Then I will discuss the doctrinal developments of the Oriental communion based on their Christology, which is what leads them to condemn other major Orthodox doctrines like Deification and Eucharist.
To be continued...