Theological Language, Ecumenical Dialogue, and Evangelism: Part III
Dr. Clark Carlton · October 5, 2009
Clark argues that ecumenical dialogue on matters that we Orthodox have no intention of changing is a fruitless endeavor.
Hello, and welcome once again to Faith and Philosophy. Today’s topic is: theological language, ecumenical dialogue, and evangelism, part three. Last time, we finished by talking about the Council of Chalcedon and what it did and did not do. I said that the council specifically refuted the heresies of Nestorius and Eutyches, but no made attempt to replace these theories with an Orthodox theory of the hypostatic union or some such. The definition of Chalcedon states specifically that in as much as certain persons have made void the teaching of the truth through their heresies, the fathers of the council have gathered to quote “exclude every device against the truth” unquote, and to reaffirm that they hold the faith of Nicea inviolate.
After receiving the letters of Cyril of Alexandria and Leo of Rome as being suitable for the quote “refutation of heresies”, the council then proceeded to tell us how not to think of Christ. We must not think of the union of the divinity and humanity in Christ to be confused, or changeable, or divisible, or separable. That’s it. The fathers did not provide any explanatory hypotheses about how the incarnation works, and while they did employ certain technical phrases that had already gained acceptance in the Eastern dioceses as well as in Egypt, such as referring to Christ as “one and the same person,” the fathers did not see the need to use other technical phrases, such as hypostatic union or the problematic, “one incarnate nature of God the Word.”
Well, this brings us to the rejection of Chalcedon by the followers of Dioscorus, a rejection that is led to, what is historically, though somewhat inaccurately, called the Monophysite Schism. Father John Romanides argued that Dioscorus was deposed by the council on canonical grounds rather than for heresy. This is one of the few things about which he and Father John Meyendorff seem to agree. He argued, and I think a lot of historians have come to the same conclusion, that the followers of Dioscorus were not actually monophysites. But if that is the case, then why did they reject Chalcedon and go into schism with the rest of the Church? Well again, a lot of modern historians claim that it was all just a big misunderstanding, or that they were motivated primarily by political rivalry. While not discounting the latter—Alexandria and Constantinople were notorious rivals at this time—there is more to it than simple misunderstanding.
You see, those who rejected Chalcedon did so, in part, because they wanted the council to endorse a particular theory, what they believed to be Cyril’s theory of the incarnation. In other words, they wanted the council to do more than just refute heresy. They wanted Cyril’s specific formulas enshrined as the necessary and only criterion of Orthodoxy. The irony here is that Cyril himself never insisted on any such thing during his own life. After the council of Ephesus, there was a schism between Cyril’s party and the bishops of the Eastern diocese, led by John of Antioch. This schism was healed by the formula of reunion signed by Cyril and John in 433. The formula does not use the phrase “hypostatic union,” and certainly not the phrase “one incarnate nature.”
Now Cyril caught a lot of flack for signing this, and we have letters of his where he defends his decision. In one particular, he makes it very clear that there is more than one way to say the same thing. He notes that the traditional Antiochian way of expressing things makes him a little nervous, but he freely admits that the Alexandrian way of speaking makes the Antiochians nervous. Nevertheless, he and John have found common ground and agreed on a common confession. But Cyril did not insist that all of his pet phraseology be used, and he certainly did not insist that John accept a particular theory of the mechanism of the incarnation. In fact, I doubt whether Cyril had a theory of the hypostatic union at all. We moderns have a bad habit of reading our own pseudo-theologies back into the writings of the fathers.
Now, if the non-Chalcedonians were not heretics in the formal sense, that is, they were not and are not monophysites, nonetheless, their expectation that the Council of Chalcedon enshrine a particular theory of the incarnation is rather unorthodox. I suppose we could say that it is methodologically unorthodox as opposed to be formally unorthodox. The council did exactly what it should have done. It refuted the heresies under consideration as simply and as parsimoniously as possible, without venturing to explain the unexplainable or committing the Church to unnecessary formulas that would be open to endless interpretation and re-interpretation.
Now, I’ve made this historical detour because Orthodox critics of the Ecumenical Movement are often just as critical of Orthodox/non-Chalcedonian dialogue as they are of the WCC. This is certainly true of Athonite criticisms, and frankly, I think it’s a pity. Father John Meyendorff used to refer to the followers of Dioscorus as Cyrillian fundamentalists, and there is something to that description. At the same time, however, those who summarily dismiss discussions with the non-Chalcedonians come off as a kind of latter-day conciliar fundamentalists who have tied themselves to the letter of Chalcedon without really considering its purpose or meaning. In the end, discussions of fifth century Christological controversies are fine for historians, but if we want to have real and meaningful dialogue with the Oriental Orthodox, and I think we should, we have to get beyond this point.
Frankly, I think a more pragmatic and fruitful method would be to convene a conference of seasoned Athonite monks and seasoned Coptic monks. Have them gather, and instead of discussing historical theology and who did what to whom in the fifth century, have them talk about how they pray, and how they fast, and how they try to acquire the virtues. If that happened, I think both sides would be able to gauge accurately just how close or how far apart we really are. I suspect the monks on Athos might come away from such a meeting surprised.
At the same time, however, can you imagine the same group of Athonite monks sitting down and discussing prayer with a lesbian witch doctor or some such from the World Council of Churches? It would become apparent within the first half hour, if not the first five minutes, that the two groups have absolutely nothing to say to one another. In order to have real dialogue, people have to be speaking the same language. Wittgenstein argued that specific patterns of language, which he called language games, arise out of specific life situations or forms of life. Language is a tool, and a specific language game arises on account of what we need it to do. Much in the same way that the need to build something causes us to look for, or even invent, tools to help us do what we’re trying to do. What I’ve been saying all along in these talks is that true theology is a particular kind of language game that arises out of the direct encounter of the human person with the uncreated glory of God. It is manifest in hymns, poetry, moral exhortation, and spiritual advice. It derives from and is inextricably tied to a specific form of life, which is nothing less than life in Christ, which we call by the technical term of Holy Tradition.
What passes for theology these days, however, the kind of stuff that fills bookstores and library shelves, is a different kind of language game all together, one that arises from the need of fallen man to subject everything, including God, to his own reasoning. This language game is manifest in learned treatises, summas, systematic theologies, and big surprise here, ecumenical dialogues. In order for us to have real dialogue, we must speak the same language, and to do that, we have to share, to a significant degree, a concrete form of life. I believe that such dialogue is possible with the Oriental Orthodox, and perhaps, with some, though certainly not all, Roman Catholics because our manner of living the faith is so similar. But by the same token, dialogue with Protestants, certainly the ones that make up the bulk of the WCC, is absolutely impossible. Modern ecumenical dialogue is the language game of pseudo-theology played by pseudo-theologians. In the end, it is just another form of intellectual self-pleasuring made respectable by its religious topics.
Years ago, the OCA’s ecumenical officer told one of our classes at St. Vlad’s that one of the great benefits of our participation in the NCC and WCC was that it prompted Orthodox thinkers to clarify their own positions and take stands on current issues. For him, this was a great benefit. But to me, it is item number one in my bill of particulars against Orthodox participation in the Ecumenical Movement. It has encouraged the Orthodox to engage in and publish pseudo-theology at an accelerated rate. We do not need ecumenical discussions on baptism, Eucharist, and ministry, to take one of the more famous units of the WCC, for us to think about these topics. In fact, we really don’t need to think or write about these topics at all. We need to participate in the sacraments faithfully not talk about them.
Then of course, there is a whole host of other topics that are utterly foreign to our way of life. Whether it’s the role of women in the Church or homosexuality, or any other number of issues, Orthodox participation in the Ecumenical Movement is prompting Orthodox Christians to address issues that simply do not arise from within our tradition or Lebensform. To address these false issues in a manner that is also foreign to our tradition, and then to congratulate ourselves on how morally and spiritually advanced over those historically-conditioned fathers who just didn’t understand about human equality, biochemistry, and DNA.
Well, this is utter madness, and the only antidote for it is for us simply to say our prayers, fast as we are able, go to confession, attend as many services as possible, commune regularly, and try to walk humbly before our God and in peace with our neighbors. That will be of greater blessing to ourselves and a far greater witness to our neighbors than all of the theology books and ecumenical dialogues combined. As far as witness to the world is concerned, in 2000 years, we have not really come up with anything better than “come and see.”
And now may our great God and Savior Jesus Christ through the intercessions of St. Innocent of Alaska and of the blessed Elder Sophrony Sakharov, have mercy upon us all, and grant us a rich entrance into his eternal kingdom. I’m Clark Carlton reminding you that your faithful support for Ancient Faith Radio makes trouble-making podcasts like these possible.