Middle Eastern Christianity is complicated

His Holiness, Pope Shenouda III (d. 2012), Coptic Orthodox Patriarch of Alexandria and All Egypt

I am giving a talk in a few days about the relevance of Leo the Great’s letters for the modern Middle East. The basic argument is: the Oriental Orthodox still reject Leo’s theology and the Council of Chalcedon, however nuanced their official positions may be, based upon ecumenical joint declarations about Christology. The root of the schism between the Miaphysites and the imperial church (whose descendants are Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Protestant) is the acceptance of Leo’s Christology at Chalcedon in 451.

What I want to find are stats on the different churches of the Middle East. Naively, I imagined that it was not necessarily so bad. There are the main focus of my investigation, the Oriental Orthodox: Coptic Orthodox, Syrian/Syriac Orthodox (“Jacobites”), Armenian Apostolic, as well as the Ethiopian and Eritrean Orthodox. They are also in communion with the Indian Orthodox Church. And I knew there was also the Church of the East, formerly misleadingly called “Nestorian”. The other main churches I knew about are the Eastern Orthodox, particularly the Antiochene Orthodox and Georgian Orthodox, although I did visit an Eastern Orthodox church in Cairo that was under their own patriarch in Alexandria.

The destabilising element, however, is the West. First: the Church of Rome. I knew there were so-called “Melkites” in communion with Rome as the result of a simultaneous union with Rome and schism within the Antiochene Orthodox Church. I also knew about the Chaldean Catholics in Iraq, themselves of a similar event in the Church of the East. And I knew that the Maronites are in communion with Rome. Plus, of course, western Rite Roman Catholics. The Church of Rome’s attempts at reunion in the 17th and 18th centuries seem to have resulted in some members of most of the historic churches of the Middle East joining them, but some not.

It gets more complicated, of course, because Anglicans have tried similar things as the Roman Catholics, seeking to enter into full communion with indigenous churches that are of apostolic origin with episcopal structure. And some of them go for Anglicanism, others don’t. So even more schism. This is not to bring in the many splinters of Protestantism familiar to any of us from the West.

I have to admit at this point that it has grown vaguer because I found it very hard keeping all of the different historic churches of the Middle East in order. Many of them have very similar names, for one thing. Others I had never heard of. But they exist, and they seek to live out the Christian life faithfully in often trying circumstances, whether we think of Daesh/ISIS in Iraq or civil war in Syria or non-government-sanctioned moments of persecution in Egypt or the memory of attempted genocide on Armenian and Assyrian Christians by the Ottomans.

What all of these faithful followers of Jesus have in common is an apostolic lineage. All of them can trace their bishops through succession back to the apostles, just like the Bishop of Rome or of Canterbury — mind you, Archbishop Welby can trace his succession back to Augustine of Canterbury, and from him to Gregory the Great of Rome. But that sort of thing is how it works for most of these churches as well — they can trace their bishops back to a missionary bishop who was connected with an older church, and the chain goes back to the apostles.

When I think about this, the apostolic succession argument, even if I were to fully embrace it, it clearly not quite strong enough to convert me out of Anglicanism. First, we tend to think that we have apostolic succession, certain denials thereof by the Church of Rome notwithstanding. Second, whose apostolic succession to choose? Roman Catholicism? Eastern Orthodoxy? Oriental Orthodoxy? The Church of the East? All of them have a tendency to say that their own form of Christianity is nothing but the pure tradition handed down by the apostles. This is actually an important point I want to consider in a later post.

Anyway, the Middle East is complicated, not only for the above but also because we Protestants are there bringing new and different approaches to the faith, from Anglicanism and Methodism to Pentecostalism. Perhaps the saddest part of this is the fact that so much of the complication arose from attempts by the Roman Catholic Church to restore Christian unity centuries ago.

How might we do better today?

The Council of Chalcedon today

The Council of Nicaea
Council of Nicaea, St Sozomen’s Church, Galata, Cyprus

Glancing over their calendar of upcoming services, I noticed that today the local Eastern Orthodox church was celebrating the Divine Liturgy in honour of the Fourth Ecumenical Council — the Council of Chalcedon of 451. A happy coincidence is that I was typing up notes from old notebooks yestereven, and I found this from Philip Jenkins’ book Jesus Wars:

If only because of the other paths that could so easily have been taken, these debates give the mid-fifth century an excellent claim to be counted as the most formative period in the whole history of Christianity. Much recent writing stresses the earlier Council of Nicea (325) as the critical moment in defining the beliefs of that faith, the critical dividing line between early and medieval Christianity. In reality, the struggle even to define core beliefs raged for centuries beyond this time and involved several other great gatherings, any one of which could have turned out very differently. (pp. 18-19)

As it turns out, I was no big fan of Jenkins’ book and ended up not finishing it. Nonetheless, the Council of Chalcedon was a big deal, is a big deal, and will continue to be a big deal for time to come. Not only that, it’s a major reason that I am where I am today. Jenkins is right to point us beyond Nicaea to the other ‘ecumenical’ councils as defining moments in Christianity — and Chalcedon has ended up being one of the biggest defining moments.

You may be surprised to read that. Indeed, several years ago I wrote a post about how Chalcedonian orthodoxy is not really that controversial. We mostly think of Chalcedon like this: Jesus is fully man and fully God. The end.

The thing is, the affirmation of Nicaea at the ‘Second Ecumenical’ Council at Constantinople in 381 established the fact that God is Jesus, that Jesus is homoousios — consubstantial — with the Father. The church within the Roman Empire also rejected a fellow named Apollinaris whose teaching subverted the full humanity of Jesus.

The question that arose in the fifth century was not, ‘Is Jesus fully God and fully man?’ but, ‘How is Jesus fully God and fully man?’ Dietrich Bonhoeffer may have been right in his Christology, and asking such questions was not necessarily the right thing to do — but they were asked. Once asked, a question cannot be unasked. And once answered, however imperfectly, it cannot be unanswered. The church had to come up with an answer that was both philosophically coherent and biblically faithful.

No mean task.

Now, you may be partisan to a different ecumenical council. That’s fine. Allow me to explain why Chalcedon is such a big deal.

The Council of Chalcedon is such a big deal because it was not universally accepted.

The Council of Nicaea, after the conversion of the Homoian (‘Semi-Arian’) barbarian kings in the Early Middle Ages, has become universally accepted (we set aside modern heretics who have resurrected Homoian and Arian thought). This is part of why it’s a big deal. Along with it, First Constantinople of 381 is also usually tacitly accepted, because a version of its creed is the one that even the ‘Nestorian’ Church of the East recites at the Eucharist.

After First Constantinople, the next council in our list of ‘ecumenical’ (or ‘universal’) ones is Council of Ephesus of 431. It is rejected by the Church of the East. That should make it a big deal like Chalcedon. And it is a very big deal, and I recommend you get to know it. However, the Council of Chalcedon is somewhat larger a deal because the Church of the East’s roots lie beyond the Roman Empire. Its story, little known to us in the West, is a different story. It is a story worth knowing, with its own contours living in the Sassanian Persian Empire, then under the Caliphate, and reaching as far East as China — but it is a different story.

You see, the Council of Ephesus was accepted by the Latin West, the Greek East, the Copts, and some amongst the Syriac-speaking world. Although there was division in its aftermath, in 433 things were patched up by the Bishops of Alexandria and Antioch in a document known by its first two words in Latin translation, ‘Laetentur caeli.’

In other words, the Church of the Roman Empire, in which Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, Protestants, as well as Copts, Syrian Orthodox, and Ethiopian Orthodox, find their heritage, came to accept Ephesus. As did the church in Armenia.

This is why the Council of Chalcedon is such a big deal. Yes, the Church of the Empire formally accepted Chalcedon. But many of her bishops in the Greek East fought against. Some emperors tried to bury it and ignore it. Justinian called a Fifth Ecumenical Council in 553, the Second Council of Constantinople, to try and deal with the divisions surrounding Chalcedon. He also issued various edicts beforehand, trying to find ways of framing theology that would both affirm the doctrine of the Council of Chalcedon and reconcile the growing Mono-/Miaphysite movement. Similar attempts at interpretation and framing of the Fourth Ecumenical Council also led directly to the Sixth Ecumenical Council, the Third of Constantinople, in 681.

Depending on which side of the many refractions of Chalcedon and its reception or rejection you found yourself on, you could end up imprisoned, or with your tongue cut out, or exiled to Petra, or stripped of ecclesiastical rank, or elevated to the episcopate, or given charge of a monastery, or any number of various situations, good or bad. You could find yourself in schism with Rome. You could find yourself in schism with Constantinople. You could find yourself hiding out in a monastery in Constantinople making Latin translations of the Greek acts of the Council of Chalcedon.

You might write a very long theological treatise defending certain aspects of Chalcedon. You might write a series of theological tractates excoriating Chalcedon and Pope Leo, whose theology it approved, for heresy. You might compile a set of miracle stories proving Chalcedon true. You might compile a set of miracle stories proving Chalcedon false.

The Council of Chalcedon is one of the most significant events of the Late Antique Church, and we need to realise that its teaching and the reception of that teaching has shaped and moulded the lives of thousands of people for 1500 years.

I believe that understanding the theology and fallout of Chalcedon, skimmed over above, is especially important for western Christians today. First, most of us would agree with Chalcedon if we knew what it taught; many of us are members of ecclesial bodies that affirm the Christological teaching of the Council of Chalcedon. By knowing who we are, what we believe, and why, we can live confidently in a world increasingly unmoored and harbourless.

Second, the world is not boxed off as it once was. The Internet makes it easier to encounter our fellow Christians from the eastern churches who reject this council. Understanding Chalcedon makes it easier for us to understand and love them. Furthermore, as war, terror, extremist Islam and secular (including economic) unrest shake the foundations of peaceable life in the Middle East, Middle Eastern Christians are finding their way West.

Some are Chalcedonians in direct, unbroken descent in the Greek tradition, such as the Antiochian Orthodox Church and the Eastern Orthodox Church of Alexandria. Some are Miaphysites who reject Chalcedon and teach that Jesus has one nature, one will, and one energy — the Coptic Orthodox, Ethiopian Orthodox Tawahedo, Syrian/Syriac Orthodox, and Armenian Apostolic Churches are amongst them. Some are ‘Nestorian’, such as the Assyrian Church of the East — many Iraqis who flee West belong to this church. There are other groups with a messy relationship with Chalcedon, such as the Chaldean Catholics, who are in communion with the Pope but try to accept both Theodore of Mopsuestia (the great teacher of Nestorius, condemned at Second Constantinople in 553) and Cyril of Alexandria (the great nemesis of Nestorius, victor at First Ephesus in 431).

Christian history is not dry and dusty and irrelevant. For the Christians of the Middle East, it is a living, breathing reality that permeates their lives. By coming to understand it better, we can love them better.