With the arrogance of youth, I determined to do no less than to transform the world with Beauty. If I have succeeded in some small way, if only in one small corner of the world, amongst the men and women I love, then I shall count myself blessed, and blessed, and blessed, and the work goes on. -- William Morris

Saturday, January 31, 2009

Oriental Orthodox in Ecumenical Dialogues 1

I. Introduction

In 1995, Pope John Paul II gave bold support for the ecumenical movement.[1] He was quite clear: Christians should strive for unity, not because it was his own personal desire, but because it was Jesus’ will:

Jesus himself, at the hour of his Passion, prayed ‘that they may all be one’ (Jn 7:21). This unity, which the Lord has bestowed on his Church and in which he wishes to embrace all people, is not something added on, but stands at the very heart of Christ’s mission. Nor is it some secondary attribute of the community of his disciples. Rather, it belongs to the very essence of this community. God wills the Church, because he wills unity, and unity is an expression of the whole depth of this agape.[2]

For centuries Christians had read Jesus’ prayer for Christian unity. But, as history shows us, it did not become a motivating factor, and they did not engage it as a matter of praxis. Rivalries for power and dissentions in beliefs quickly formed within the Church. While one might point out the political struggles which helped form great divisions between Christians, and use that to suggest that such division existed because of lone individuals who thirsted for power, this would be a simplified and unjust examination of the situation We must be willing to recognize that good Christians, not seeking glory or power, but seeking truly to understand their faith, did have different views of that faith, and the reasons for these differences are as complex as the personalities involved. As we shall discover, recognizing this very fact has been, and continues to be, one of the fruits of ecumenical dialogue. This is quite noticeable when one examines the division between Chalcedonian and non-Chalcedonian churches.[3]

While it is true that the Council of Ephesus made the first major ecclesial division,[4] there is no doubt that there is something special about Chalcedon, and the division which it created was of a greater nature than what occurred at Ephesus. For those who accepted Chalcedon’s authority, its Christological definition became the normative explanation for how one was to proclaim the personage of Jesus Christ. It was an imperative for them (the Catholic Church and most of the Western tradition, and the Chalcedonian Orthodox Churches) to follow the tenets of Chalcedon: Jesus Christ is the second person of the divine Trinity, fully divine and fully human, indivisibly one in hypostasis and without confusion in his two natures.[5] Those who rejected Chalcedon did so because they understood it as being fundamentally flawed and Nestorian in its content. For over fifteen hundred years, Chalcedon has been a dividing line which neither side has been willing to step beyond.

II Encounters and Dialogues Before 1951

Despite what occurred at Chalcedon, there have been several attempts throughout the years where one side or the other of the Chalcedonian divide tried to find an amicable solution and resolution to their theological conflict. It is also interesting to note that the rupture between the Orthodox and Catholic churches that emerged after Chalcedon helped to create ways by which both the Orthodox and the Catholics were able to enter into dialogue with one or more of the Oriental Orthodox churches.

We can see how this worked out before the modern era by looking at one of the particular Oriental Orthodox Churches: the Armenian Apostolic Church. Catholicos Karekin I’s article “Ecumenical Trends in the Armenian Church,” offers us a great amount of information. In it, he explains that the Armenian Church did not find itself entirely isolated from the rest of the Christian world (and the same can be said about most of the other Oriental Orthodox Churches, to one degree or another).[6] “Despite times of bitter controversy and confrontation, relations were pursued with the Greek and Georgian churches, with the Byzantine patriarchate of Constantinople and with Syriac communities.”[7]

Probably the most interesting example of this can be found during the twelfth century. In 1165, the Armenian Bishop Nerses the Gracious (later, the Armenian primate) had a Christological dialogue with Duke Alexis, a representative of the Byzantine Emperor.[8] Alexis was so impressed of what he heard that he asked for a written exposition and record of their dialogue. Nerses accepted the request, and he wrote what the Armenians call the Pontifical Letter of St Nerses the Gracious. Both the Byzantine Emperor and the Patriarch of Constantinople were intrigued by the position of Bishop Nerses, and they wanted an active dialogue with the Armenians. They believed it would be possible to bring both churches back into communion with each other. The dialogue went from 1165 through 1179, when it ended at the time of the Emperor’s death. There were many ecumenical advances that foreshadow the trends of modern dialogues. For example, the Armenian and Byzantine churches saw that the Christological caricatures each side had placed against each other had been wrong, and that neither side was heretical.[9]

On the other end of the spectrum, the Western Church actively began a reengagement with the Armenians during the Crusades. There was, as Karekin I points out, a lot of political motivation behind the Armenian dialogue with the West: “[...] the kings and political authorities of Cilician Armenia, for example, encouraged an ecclesiastical rapprochement with the West, in the hope and expectation that Western principalities would thereby extend assistance to support the Armenian kingdom of Cilicia.”[10] Sadly, since the dialogue was mostly politically motivated, and as the political alliance that the Armenians desired did not surface, the dialogues ended up being merely controversial debates on doctrinal and liturgical differences without much success in creating a mutual understanding. Yet, we must remember, as Karekin points out, this does not mean there were not any fruitful aspects to this dialogue. “The exchange [...] became a source of enrichment to the Armenians, especially with regard to science and such arts as literature and manuscript illumination, but also in certain aspects of social life.”[11]

Before entering into the modern era, we should also briefly examine one of the more important ecumenical dialogues of the late medieval era, the Council of Florence in 1438 – 1445. While the dialogue and brief reunion between the Catholic and Orthodox Churches is usually what people are interested about Florence, we must remember that the Oriental Orthodox were also present, although what was said was mostly in a side-dialogue with the Catholic Church.[12] John Meyendorff tell us that despite being a failure, the council itself “is of great theological significance.”[13] Even though the reason for the council could be seen as primarily political, nonetheless there was at the council itself a great and very active dialogue on the disputed questions between the churches. It represented both some of the best and worst approaches to ecumenism. The concessions that were had at the council by each side were many, and allowed for a great diversity of theological thought and liturgical traditions within the Church. The way the agreement had been made, mostly forced upon the East for aid against the Turks, also demonstrates to us that ecumenical unions are not always made for the right reason, nor are they always strong (as the quick demise of the union established at Florence shows).[14] Because of its failure, there is often a hesitancy by Orthodox theologians to believe that the solution to Christian division will be found within a new grand ecumenical council.


[1] Through the publishing of his encyclical Ut Unum Sint.
[2] John Paul II, Encyclical Letter Ut Unum Sint Of the Holy Father John Paul II On Commitment to Ecumenism. Vatican translation (Boston: Pauline Books and Media, 1995), paragraph 9.
[3] Those churches which are called the Oriental Orthodox Churches are the Armenian Apostolic Church, the Coptic Orthodox Church, the Eritrean Orthodox Church, the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, the Syrian Orthodox Church, and the Malankara Orthodox Syrian Church of India.
[4] Those who rejected the Council of Ephesus helped to form the Church of the East.
[5] See Henry Denzinger, The Sources of Catholic Dogma. trans. Roy J. Deferrari (London: B. Herder Book Co., 1954), citation 148.
[6] It is true that the closer one of the Oriental Orthodox churches were to a different ecclesiastical community, the more interaction they would have with each other. They would share common regional problems (for example, what to do with Islam) and this would mean they had more reason to interact with each other and to support each other despite their differences.
[7] Catholicos Karekin I, “Ecumenical Trends in the Armenian Church” Ecumenical Review, vol. 51 (January 1999), 31.
[8] Ibid., 33.
[9] “A tacit consensus was actually reached that when the Armenians spoke of ‘one nature’ of Christ [...] they were neither confusing the two natures nor accepted one and rejecting the other [....] Conversely, when the Byzantines spoke of ‘two natures’, they were not separating Christ into two entities.” Ibid., 33.
[10] Ibid., 33.
[11] Ibid., 34.
[12] For example, see Denzinger citations 695 – 702 to read from the Decree for the Armenians.
[13] John Meyendorff, Byzantine Theology: Historical Trends and Doctrinal Themes. (New York: Fordham University Press, 1974; second edition, 1983), 109.
[14] Despite its failure, the model established at Florence became the normative way that the Catholic Church interacted with the Eastern and Oriental Churches. “In the course of the last four centuries, in various parts of the East, initiatives were taken within certain churches and impelled by outside elements, to restore communion between the church of the East and the church of the West. These initiatives led to the union of certain communities with the See of Rome, and brought with them, as a consequence, the breaking of communion with their mother churches of the East. This took place not without the interference of extra-ecclesial interests. In this way Oriental Catholic Churches came into being.” Joint International Catholic-Orthodox Commission, “Uniatism, Method of Union of the Past, and the Present Search for Full Communion,” (1993) chap. in The Quest for Unity: Orthodox and Catholics in Dialogue. ed. by John Borelli and John H. Erickson (Crestwood, N.Y.: Saint Vladimir Seminary Press,), paragraph 8.

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