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Saturday, November 6, 2010

Overcoming the Chalcedonian Divide

Kenneth F. Yossa, Common Heritage, Divided Communion: Advances of Inter-Orthodox Relations from Chalcedon to Chambésy (Piscataway, NJ: Gorgias Press, 2009), x+272pp.

Many people today, so ill educated in even recent history and having no knowledge of doctrinal history, seem to imagine the creeds fell from heaven during luncheon one Friday afternoon. These innocents continue to be slack-jawed when they hear of the debates and divisions in the aftermath of Chalcedon, and even more astonished when they hear that those divisions are still not healed. Many, perhaps most, Orthodox faithful in particular are unaware that things have advanced to such a point today that neither side of the Chalcedonian divide can justly or correctly be condemned as "heterodox."  But many misunderstandings continue to abound about Chalcedon and its aftermath. I noted earlier a recent book about all this, but thought I would post my longer review (from Logos: A Journal of Eastern Christian Studies) of a superb new book by the Romanian Catholic priest Kenneth Yossa because he helps us to see precisely where we are, and what we must do to heal the Oriental-Byzantine divide. 

Yossa's first two chapters synthesize the history of doctrinal definitions and divisions in the early Church, centering, of course, on Chalcedon. This part of the book would function very well on its own as an introduction to the ecumenical councils. He is able to describe an enormous terrain of considerable complexity, but do so in a way that never loses its focus or overwhelms the reader in a mass of tangents or distractions. 

The third chapter focuses on the beginning of Orthodox ecumenical dialogue in 1960s. The first (unofficial) 1964 Aarhus (Denmark) consultation, followed by the 1967 consultation in Bristol, England, both, in a matter of days, produced an agreement on the part of theologians and bishops on both sides stating that neither side was guilty of “the heresy suspected of it by the other” (100). The Bristol consultation also produced the (to my mind) astonishing statement that “dogmatic formulae can be transcended by the experience of the Church, which can complete them and extend them…safeguarded by the holy limits of Revelation.” If that is not an endorsement of the concept of “development of doctrine” that some Orthodox theologians sneeringly dismiss whenever Catholics raise the notion, then I do not know what is. 

After continued unofficial and official meetings over the next two decades, progress was made to such a point that, in 1990 in Chambésy, both affirmed that “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 have used Christological terms in different ways” (124). They went on to call for the lifting of “all anathemas and condemnations” and a consequent restoration of full eucharistic communion. As things have turned out, the greater difficulty has proven to be not the Christological debate, but the anathemas and condemnations each side hurled at the other. To retract these now would seem to suggest that the canonical and liturgical texts were somehow in error, a mind-boggling notion for many. 

Since 1993, no formal meeting of all representatives of Churches on both sides has taken place, and no individual Church on either side of the divide has actually ratified the agreed statements. Worse, in the late 1990s, as the Orthodox Churches in Eastern Europe continued to emerge from their communist pasts, some of them—the Georgian in particular—actually repudiated the earlier agreed statements, unhelpfully calling them “unacceptable.” This sad development followed on shortly from the Georgian Church’s withdrawal, in 1997, from the World Council of Churches. 

The situation in the Middle East, however, is much more positive, as Eastern and Oriental Churches there have continued the work of drawing closer to one another. The Coptic and Greek patriarchs of Alexandria, and the Greek and Syriac patriarchs of Antioch, have produced very similar agreements on limited sacramental sharing, catechetical co-operation, and other pastoral matters. Here, as in Europe, the focus has “shifted from the ‘what’ of the Christology to the ‘how’ of ecclesiology” (148). Today both sides need to grapple with the role of councils and their reception, with anathemas of saints and fathers, and with jurisdictional questions (“one bishop to one city”). 

A further question has arisen in this dialogue as in the Eastern Orthodox-Catholic one: what is the real meaning and purpose of lifting an anathema or excommunication if it does not in fact lead to a shared sacramental life around one eucharistic table? If we are not excommunicated from one another, but yet not sharing one chalice, then what are we? Is there some kind of half-way house to unity? 

Yossa recognizes that we need a widespread healing of memories, and much work must be done at the level of what he variously calls “local ecumenism” or “popular ecumenism.” He notes that “very little, if anything, has changed in the popular view regarding ‘Monophysites’ in the West and in most Eastern Orthodox communities” (185). Both sides need to overcome the ancient mentality which continues today to condemn the other side as “heretical” and, tediously, to slander all laborers for unity as guilty of the “pan-heresy” of “ecumenism.” Difficult though ecumenical dialogue and progress may be, Christians of all traditions need to realize that the will of Christ for unity among His followers is not something we can chuck because it is laborious, or condemn because it does not fit into straitened and simplistic categories of our own devising. After sixteen centuries of division, when the Byzantine and Oriental Orthodox have already come so far and unity is so agonizingly close, can any of us afford to continue to try the Lord’s patience by failing to advance towards the full and complete unity He demands of us?


  1. Wonderful! If it was only more affordable :(

  2. Yes, Gorgias Press is known for selling books at about 3 times what you would expect the text to cost.


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