The Orthodox and Non-Chalcedonians

A Hymn to the Theotokos

It is truly meet to call thee blessed, the Theotokos, for the Creator of all, having entered into thine immaculate womb, became flesh without changing in nature, nor effecting the dispensation in illusion.  But He was united in hypostasis to the living flesh which He took from thee, and which was endowed with reason, and which received its being in Him. Wherefore, we piously make distinction in the two natures that are made manifest.  Do thou entreat Him, O all-holy and modest one, that He send down unto us peace and great mercy. (Pentecostarion, p.345, Holy Transfiguration Monastery, Boston , Mass.)  

The Orthodox and Non-Chalcedonians: Do we Share the same beliefs?

“Now they say we have believed the same thing all along and so we should work towards a reunion”.  In the mid 1970’s, a subdeacon spoke these words to me in reference to the Orthodox (or Eastern Orthodox) and Non-Chalcedonians (or Oriental Orthodox).   But are these words true?  Do we Orthodox share the same beliefs as the Non-Chalcedonians?  Or are certain individuals mistaken and so, misleading the faithful?  A brief response will be offered here, although this will not be a comprehensive study or sophisticated theological response to this matter.  Rather several main points will be brought to the attention of the readers which hopefully will be accessible, not only to the theologically trained, but also to the simple layman.  So we shall consider the source of the above quote; a misquotation of St. John of Damascus used in the book, Does Chalcedon Divide or Unite—authored by Nikos K.Nisiotis and published by the World Council of Churches; and finally the Christology expressed by the Non-Chalcedonians which they claim to be in harmony with St. Cyril of Alexandria.

The aforementioned words of the sub-deacon were a brief summary of the result of dialogues between the Orthodox and Non-Chalcedonians.  I believe the first meeting took place in 1970 and periodic dialogues have continued.  Statements have been issued which were termed, “Suggestions of a Committee to the Churches”.  These statements have encouraged a union of Orthodox and Non-Chalcedonians; however, neither the Orthodox Church nor the leaders of the Non-Chalcedonians have officially endorsed these statements.  On the other hand, among the Orthodox, the Monasteries of the Holy Mountain have published a counter-statement titled: Suggestions of a Committee from the Sacred Community of the Holy Mountain Athos Concerning the Dialogue of the Orthodox with the Non-Chalcedonians.  This can be found on the internet at:  The unfortunate thing is that—as alluded to above—various individuals in our Church have acted as though a union of Orthodox and Non-Chalcedonians is an accomplished fact.  And in so doing, they are placing the “Suggestions of a Committee to the Churches”, above the Fourth, Fifth and Sixth Ecumenical Councils!            

But what is this misquotation of St. John of Damascus to which reference has been made?  On pages 30-31 of the book, Does Chalcedon Divide or Unite, it reads:

“The classical dogmatician of the Orthodox Church, John of Damascus successfully expressed Orthodoxy’s positive attitude towards the non-Chalcedonian Christians of the East when he said that he considered them, on the basis of the Constitution of Chalcedon, to be separated from the [Orthodox] Church only with regard to their geographical position, while being Orthodox in all other things.

Going back to the original passage we find the translation from the Catholic University Press series reads:

The Egyptians, who are also called Schematics and Monophysites, separated from the Orthodox Church on the pretext that the document [approved] at Chalcedon [and known as] the Tome.  They have been called Egyptians because of the fact that during the reign of Emperors Marcian and Valentian the Egyptians were the first authors of this particular kind of heresy. (The Fathers of the church Vol. 37, St. John of Damascus, Writings CUA p. 138)

In checking the original Greek text we find that at this point the following is added: “while in all other things they are  Orthodox”.  Yet far from showing a positive attitude towards them St. John goes on to censure them saying: “They set many snares, so to speak, and ‘laid stumbling blocks by the wayside’ (Ps.139.6) for those who are lost in their pernicious heresy.  Although they hold the individual substances, they destroy the mystery of the Incarnation”.  (Ibid. p. 139)  

Today the Oriental Orthodox would say that they are not monophysites nor would they say they could be categorized as monothelites.  How do they explain their Christology?  One authoritative Coptic website,, states:    

The Coptic Church has never believed in monophysitism the way it was portrayed in the Council of Chalcedon! In that Council, monophysitism meant believing in one nature. Copts believe that the Lord is perfect in His divinity, and He is perfect in His humanity, but His divinity and His humanity were united in one nature called “the nature of the incarnate word”, which was reiterated by Saint Cyril of Alexandria. Copts, thus, believe in two natures “human” and “divine” that are united in one “without mingling, without confusion, and without alteration” (from the declaration of faith at the end of the Coptic divine liturgy). These two natures “did not separate for a moment or the twinkling of an eye” (also from the declaration of faith at the end of the Coptic divine liturgy).

Other Non-Chalcedonian sourcesstate similar things, such as the Ethiopian Tewahedo website, Tewahedo_Church, which states:

The Oriental Orthodox Churches, which today include the Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria, the Armenian Apostolic Church, the Syriac Orthodox Church, the Malankara Orthodox Church of India, the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, and the Eritrean Orthodox Tewahedo Church, are referred to as “Non-Chalcedonian”, and, sometimes by outsiders as “monophysite” (meaning “One Single Nature”, in reference to Christ). However, these Churches themselves describe their Christology as miaphysite (meaning “One United Nature”, in reference to Christ; the translation of the word “Tewahedo”).

This same website defines in greater detailvthe term “Tewahedo” as follows: 

 A Ge’ez word meaning “being made one” or “unified”. This word refers to the Oriental Orthodox belief in the one single unified Nature of Christ; i.e., a belief that a complete, natural union of the Divine and Human Natures into One is self-evident in order to accomplish the divine salvation of humankind, as opposed to the “two Natures of Christ” belief (unmixed, but unseparated Divine and Human Natures, called the Hypostatic Union) which is held by the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches.

There are those who actually believe we are confessing the same faith in different terms but it is very deceiving.  On the contrary, St. John of Damascus exposes the error of those who believe “the two natures became one united nature”, when he writes:

The natures were united to each other without change or alteration.  The divine nature did not give up its proper simplicity, and the human nature was certainly not changed into the nature of the divinity, nor did it become non-existent.  Neither was there one compound nature made from two natures.  For the compounded nature can in no wise be consubstantial with either of the natures from which it has been compounded, since from diverse natures it has been made into something else….If Christ had one compound nature after the union, having changed from one simple nature to a compound one, as the heretics say, then He is neither consubstantial with His Father, who has a simple nature, nor with His mother, because she was not composed of divinity and humanity.  Nor, indeed, will He belong to divinity or humanity, nor can he be called God or man, but just Christ alone, and, according to them, ‘Christ’ will not be the name of the person but the name of the one nature….We say that the term ‘Christ’ is the name of the person and that it is not used in a restricted sense, but as signifying what is of two natures. (The Fathers of the church Vol. 37, St. John of Damascus, Writings, CUA, pp. 271-2)

A concluding question for consideration:  If, as the Oriental Orthodox say, there is one united nature in Christ, then were does the Person of God the Son come in to play?  Do they believe the Person of our Lord Jesus Christ is divine or human?  This is one factor of Christology that the “Committees” have not broached.  We Orthodox confess that His Person is Divine. 

Finally, I would like to say something about St. Cyril of Alexandria.  This is a question to ponder:  Is the Christology of St. Cyril in agreement with the Eastern Orthodox teaching of one person in two natures, or is he is harmony with the Oriental Orthodox concept of one compound united nature?  Both would obviously invoke St. Cyril in order to support their own position.

So where do we start to find an answer?  Let us look at the historical background of the aforementioned statement of St. Cyril.  In a paper written anonymously by an Orthodox nun we find a satisfactory answer:

The Christological Controversies of the Fifth Century

At the time of these controversies, there were two main theological schools of thought within the eastern section of the Roman empire: the “Antiochene” and the “Alexandrian” schools.  There were a number of differences between them, such as their methods of interpreting Scripture.  For our purpose, it is most important to consider their different understandings of how our salvation was accomplished.

The Antiochene school was characterized by an insistence of the full humanity of Christ.  Against Apollinaris, who said that the Word of God had assumed only human flesh, the Antiochene theologians were concerned to preserve the entire human nature, including freedom of will, of the incarnate Christ.  For them, it was the union and cooperation of the human with the divine in Christ which brought about our salvation—if Christ were not fully human, we would not be saved.  Their shortcoming was in a weak or poorly expressed understanding of the union between the divine and human natures; taken to its logical extreme (and most or all heresies are an attempt to make the Christian Revelation fit human logic in one way or another), this led to the heresy of  Nestorius*.

The Alexandrian school, on the other hand, was characterized by a deep opposition to the heresy of Arius, who had held that the Logos (or Word) was not God but a created being, although superior to humans. Thus the Alexandrians especially insisted on the divinity of Christ — if the Son of God had not united our humanity to Himself so completely that He made it fully His own, we would not have been saved. The weakness of this school of thought was a tendency to reduce the humanity of Christ to a purely passive element which seems to lose its distinctive humanness and to be absorbed into the divinity; the logical extreme of this is monophysitism.

St. Cyril of Alexandria, although fully Orthodox, he nevertheless stood within the Alexandrian theological tradition.  Because of this, and also because of his intense opposition to the heresy of Nestorius, he was especially concerned to assert the unity of the Incarnate Word.  To do this, he picked up, the phrase, “one nature (physis) of the incarnate Word of God”out of a writing which was being circulated under the name of St. Athanasius the Great.  As it happens, in the 6th century this was discovered to be a fraud — the work had actually been written by Apollinaris.  To the Antiochenes, the phrase used by St. Cyril sounded Apollinarian, and in a way they were right; at the same time, St. Cyril (who believed that this phrase carried the authority of St. Athanasius) was interpreting it in an Orthodox way.  St. Cyril’s shortcoming was simply a certain imprecision in his way of expressing the union of God and man in the Incarnation or rather, in his concern to emphasize the unity of divine and human in Christ, he could find no clear way of expressing the reality of the full humanness of Christ.  His theology was Orthodox but his language was somewhat ambiguous.  He did understand that the Orthodox view of the Incarnation could be expressed in other terms; in his letters he indicated that he also accepted speaking of Christ as having two natures, as long as that is interpreted in an Orthodox way.  His preference, however, remained with the “one nature” formula, because he felt it was a better safeguard against Nestorianism.

We must keep in mind that at this point the word “nature” (physis) still had a rather broad range of meanings. All, both Alexandrians and Antiochenes, usually used physis** and hypostasis*** as equivalent.  The Antiochenes tended to speak of two physis or two hypostasis, in order to show clearly the fully—functioning humanity of Christ, but in this way they only had the weak word prosopon [This had the basic meaning of face or countenance.  It was also used to mean a character in a play, mask, also outward appear or expression.] to indicate the unity of divine and human. The Alexandrians usually spoke of one physis or one hypostasis; St. Cyril used the phrases “one nature (physis) of the Word of God Incarnate” and “one hypostasis of the Word of God Incarnate” interchangeably.

It remained for the Council of Chalcedon to combine the insights of’ both these schools by separating the two terms and using hypostatsis to refer to the one Person of Christ and physis to refer to the full divinity or the full humanity which were united in Him.

*“Nestorianism. The doctrine that there were two separate Persons in the incarnate Christ, the one Divine and the other human, as opposed to the Orthodox doctrine that the incarnate Christ was a single Person at once God and man.  It was characterized by the rejection of the term Theotokos.” (The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, p961)

**Physis could refer to nature as manifest in the physical world; theologically it signified “nature” with the meaning of an essence along with the attributes proper to it.

***Hypostasis is from the Greek upistemi, which is a compound of upo (under) and istemi (stand), thus the basic meaning is a support or foundation that stands under something.  The range of its meanings include the substance out of which something is made.  

The Ecumenical Councils from Chalcedon on did set a seal of approval on the Christology of St. Cyril.  At one point in his life he used terminology which was ambiguous and misleading in defending a phrase which he believed to be authored by St. Athanasius the Great; that is, “the one nature of the incarnate Word of God”.  St. Cyril was never censured for his aforementioned expression because it is neither just nor accurate to judge the writings of the early fathers in the light of ways of expressing the Orthodox Faith which the Church developed later.  Nevertheless at a certain point in time St. Cyril accepted a change in terminology.  After the Third Ecumenical Council of Ephesus in 431 a conflict arose between St.Cyril and John of Antioch who arrived shortly after it concluded . In their reunion of 433 Cyril accepts: “The change from mian physin tou Logou tou Theou sesarkomenen [one nature of the incarnate Word of God] to mian hypostasin tou Logou tou Theou sesarkomenen [one person of the incarnate Word of God], thereby inaugurating a new era in the formulation of doctrine.” (Taken from the class notes of a former professor of Patristics at St.Tikhon’s Seminary)

In conclusion we could rightly say that we Eastern Orthodox believe that St. Cyril was in harmony with our Christology; nevertheless St. Cyril is not the touchstone of truth for us but rather the consensus of the Holy Fathers of the Ecumenical Councils.  This conciliarity is the way of the Church, since Holy Pentecost.  Relying on one figure alone, taken out of context is the way of heresy. 


One more point needs to be brought to the attention of the reader.  Christology and the concept of salvation go hand-in-hand, so then, we should consider just a few more points.  The Oriental Orthodox do not have a theology of the Uncreated Light.  Why?  Because the experience of  It is not in their ascetic tradition.  What are the repercussions?  What is their view of grace and that of salvation?  What do they teach about the essence and energy of God?  Again I ask:

The Orthodox and the Non-Chalcedonians: Do we share the same beliefs?