Friday, November 23, 2012

Chalcedon in the Assyrian Church: A Third Helping

This is my third and final posting related to the Church of the East’s reception of Chalcedon. I’ve spent a great deal of time on Chalcedon because it allows the canonical tradition to speak for not only the place of this important Christological (theology on Christ) statement in the Church of the East but it also allows us to understand where the Church of the East places herself within the scope of Apostolic Christianity. Therefore, we’re going to conclude our study of this council by examining the way the documents of Chalcedon were received by the Church of the East, as well as stating a few questions that arise from our study of Chalcedon as an Assyrian Church heritage as well a reflection of the larger ecclesiological reality.
The Assyrian Church of the East, according to her canonical tradition, forms her canonical structure as a patriarchal and local church of the one Church of Christ; this is a universal Christian structure. The Collection of Synodical (Canonical) Documents of the Church of the East or the Synodicon of the Church of the East demonstrates this by how it prioritizes its three sections: 1. Canons and Decrees of the Ecumenical (Western) Councils; 2. Canons and Decrees of the Patriarchal (Assyrian) Councils; 3. Letters and Questions and Answers regarded as canonical binding. There is a clear priority in the structure of this document and it reflects the basic self-understanding of a local Church in orthodox faith: what is universal is expressed by what is local. Simply, an ecumenical council accepted by the Church of the East (Nicea or Chalcedon) is superior and structural to the patriarchal councils of the Church of the East (Mar Ishaq or Mar Aqaq).

The Synod of Chalcedon forms the bedrock of Christology for Chalcedonian Christianity and thereby forges the Orthodox identity we know today. It is the last “Western” and Ecumenical Synod entered into the record of the Church of the East. Therefore, it represents the last time that a full and complete sense of Christian unity was shared between the Church of the East and apostolic churches west of Persia—Rome, Constantinople, etc. Of course, it also cleaved ‘one-nature’ Christianity away from ‘two-nature’ Christianity. Chalcedon also offers a powerful statement in response to the central controversy that ended up being the cause of division: how do we speak of Christ as fully God and fully man.

W.A. Wigram, in his awesome book, An Introduction to the History of the Assyrian Church or The Church of the Sassanid Empire 100-640 A.D (full text available here) provides us with the Assyrian version of the Definition of Chalcedon, as found in the Mosul manuscript:
Joining ourselves therefore to the holy Fathers, we all confess alike and with one accord-one and the same Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, perfect in His Godhead,. and, the same, perfect in His Manhood, of reasonable soul and body. Of one nature with His Father in His Godhead, and, the same, of one nature with us in His Manhood, in all things save sin; begotten of the Father before the worlds in His Godhead, and born in these last days, the same, for us men and for our salvation, of Mary the Virgin, Mother of Christ who is God and Man; One and the same Christ, Son, God, Lord Only-begotten; to be acknowledged in two natures without confusion, without change, without mixture, without separation; the distinction of the two natures being by no means done away by the union, but the individuality of either of the two natures being rather preserved, and running together in one Person and two Qnumi; not to be divided or separated into two Sons, but there being one and the same only-begotten Son, our Lord Jesus Christ. (Wigram 297)

Notice two differences from the original form of the Definition of Chalcedon: Theotokos is rendered “Mother of Christ who is God and Man” and the phrase “one person and two qnume” where the original has Theotokos and just “one person”, respectably. The term Theotokos is not used by the Church of the East on grounds that it is unclear rather than strictly theologically wrong. The first reason Theotokos, Yaldath Alaha in Syriac, seems unclear to the Church of the East is that Alaha (God) refers to the God-head or the Trinity so the Church of the East rejected the sense that the Blessed Virgin is the “Mother of the Trinity”. 
Also, Mshikha (Messiah or Christ) is overwhelming defined as the God-man, Jesus Christ. Indeed, in all my reading of Assyrian Christological documents and having chanted through the services growing up, I have never seen Mshikha used in any fashion other than the God incarnate. Therefore, the Assyrian theologians wonder, why would one not prefer the name of the Second Person of the trinity, Mshikha, to the name of the whole trinity, Alaha, when describing whom it was the Virgin bore? Here’s a nice example of Assyrian thinking on the subject:


It is just and right and proper that Mary should be called "Mother of Christ," for that is the name that shows that there was one Person of unity, who in His human nature was of her nature, and in His Godhead, not of her nature. But seeing that from the first moment of the conception of the Manhood of our Lord, that He took from her, God the Word dwelt in it temple-wise and unitedly, and made it with him one Son eternally, we do say that she was thus "Mother of God" and "Mother of the Manhood." Mother of the Manhood by nature; Mother of God, in that He was united to His manhood from the first moment of its conception; and it is His temple eternally, and He is God and Man unitedly, one Son, one Christ (De unione, VII:22; Wigram 288).

Basically, Mother of Christ is preferred for it is seen as encompassing both Mother of God and Mother of Manhood and both latter terms are seen as insufficient. Indeed the term Mother of Manhood, Yaldath Barnasha, was rejected in the AD 612 Synod of the Church of the East as equally objectionable as Yaldath Alaha. Simply, there is an Assyrian Church allergy to phases that could be misinterpreted as eliminating the human nature of Christ. Of course, caution is taken to preserve the sense that Christ is one and that the Messiah is one person: God incarnate.

Furthermore, Chalcedon’s careful expression of Christ as both one person and two natures, with the added and strong emphasis “inconfusedly, unchangeably, indivisibly, inseparably in one person” is reflected in the Christological formulae used in synodical decrees of the Church of the East. The Assyrian Church of the East expresses Chalcedonian theology with great ease. Indeed, the theology and language of Chalcedon is repeated and restated not only in the Synod of Mar Aqaq (as referenced in my prior post), but also those of Mar Isho-Yahb (AD 587); Mar Sabrisho (AD 596); and Grigor (AD 605).

It is intriguing to consider the Christological reality of a Church that accepts Chalcedon (the fourth Ecumenical Synod), but has not responded, officially, to the teachings and canons of the 3, 5, 6 and 7th councils—putting the condemnations of Theodore and Nestorius aside. Would the Church of the East find these councils expressive of what she herself believes? This question is further imposed by the reality of the Synodicon itself. Clearly, the fact that ecumenical councils are given the spot of honor at the head of the document speaks of the ecclesiastical reality that the Assyrian Church saw herself as properly belonging as the Patriarchate of all the East of the Orthodox and Catholic Church. Could this vision of ecclesiological unity expressed in canonical reality be conceived of again, if certain dialogues bore fruit?

Friday, November 16, 2012

Canonical Terms: What are we talking about?

In examining to what extent the Assyrian Church of the East shares common ground with the Orthodox Church, I’ve been using the collection of canonical writings of the Church of the East known as the Synodicon Orientale. I am going to deal with canonical material from the Synodicon Orientale in a more minute way, so I’ll begin with a few definitions of the basic canonical terms I’ll use.

Canonical: Christianity has been attempting organization since the apostles first disputed over who can sit with who at table in fellowship. When Christians first got permission from imperial authorities (the Persian Empire for the Assyrians; the Roman for the Orthodox-Catholic Church), they got to unite in both local and ecumenical or world-wide synods—the Ecumenical Synods all happened under the Roman Christian authority of Constantinople. Ecumenical synods were an outgrowth of the basic and universal Christian structure of bishops who preside over cities and the bishop of the metropolis, around which the other cities share an imperial/secular economy and government, uniting with his fellow bishops from time to time to order Christian life in common. The meetings were called synods, meaning “walking together”. The local synods of the first couple centuries gave rise to imperially supported Ecumenical Synods after the conversion of St Constantine the Roman Emperor.

When something required a group of bishops to deliberate, they gathered and came up with a statement or even a set of commonly accepted rules (canons). This statement, with the canons that might accompany, becomes the expression of the will of the Holy Spirit for the body of the church that proclaimed it. Now, if we’re considering a decree and/or canons of a local council of the Church of the East (Synod of Mar Aqaq, for instance), then we know that decree is particular to the Church of the East.

Similarly, when we consider a decree of an Ecumenical Council, we know that this affects the entire ecumenical (worldwide) Church. It also means that if someone does not accept it as ecumenical while another church does, they now have a fundamental division; schism or heresy. Now a canon of the synod of the patriarchate of Antioch very much will affect the entire Church of Antioch, but if Russia disagrees, it doesn’t matter since it is an Antiochian canon. If everyone adopts the decisions of a particular synod, then it becomes, by use, ecumenical. Most decrees and rulings are the local administration of a local church—Antioch, Alexandria, Russia, Georgia, or the Church of the East. Some synods are ecumenical because they are accepted by the entire church: Nicea, Constantinole, etc.

Canonical denotes material recognized as the binding and expressed will of the Holy Spirit. Canonical material is binding in a way other documents are not. You can disagree with a point of St John of Damascus (Angels cannot repent because they do not have bodies) and still be an obedient Orthodox Christian of the Patriarchate of Antioch, but you cannot be violating the canonical decrees of that Patriarchate of Antioch (celebrate Christmas on 25 December) to which you belong. The Scriptures are the fundamental canonical material of Christianity as is the Nicean Creed. There are other less well known ecumenical documents such as the Apostolic Canons or the Canons of Laodocia that are also ecumenical. Of course, Christians the world over will have a bible and recite the creed. They won’t however, usually, be dealing with Episcopal discipline or other canonical issues, so some parts of the canonical tradition are more well-known than others.

Synodicon: A synodicon usually means a decree or summary and authoritative statement of a Synod, such as the Synodicon of Orthodoxy . Or it can also mean a book that contains the material of the synods that are considered binding on a particular jurisdiction. An ecumenical synodicon would be everything universally binding while a Russian, Greek, Church of the East or Roman synodicon would be stuff that is binding on the local church. Of course, the ecumenical canonical material has priority over the local canons that usually are trying to fine-tune the purpose of the ecumenical canons. For example of an old ecumenical synodicon and what the word represents read up on the Vetus Synodicon.

The Synodicon of the Church of the East is a term I use to refer to a massive collection of everything considered canonical in the Church of the East at the time of the particular manuscript’s writing. However, in the 13th century the main texts of the synodicon were compiled and edited in one volume; as far as I know, they haven’t been since. We’re working with a document that is from the 13th century, so bear that in mind. This document is the expression of the will of the Holy Spirit to the Church of the East and speaks for the Church’s self-understanding in as serious a fashion that her liturgy does.

Now a word about editing. How important would the second article of the US Constitution be without the Constitution itself, just as a stand-alone document? It would be a nice opinion but defiantly not binding. Canon Law is as much a history of how the Church structured herself as it is a history of what made-up that structure. Imagine the books of the bible mixed in with every other ancient writing that vaguely spoke of Christ rather than the particular sequence and priority structure we have due to the Church’s careful work in the first centuries.

Now canons have been collected together ever since Nicea created the sense of a united Christendom. At first, there was a Corpus Canonum, or Body of Canons from Antioch which just had all the canons and decrees of the councils then accepted as authoritative; it probably had its origins in Antioch. This Corpus or body of canons was continually growing from around 350 until around 520; it thereafter morphed in to Syntagma and Nomocanon, which are beyond the scope of this entry. During this time, an early edition was taken to the Church of the East by St Marutha of Maperqath. From the time of Mar Marutha, the Church of the East receives various editions of the documents of the ecumenical councils of the “western fathers”, which is how she saw her Antiochian, Constantinopolitan, etc brethren.

Now, Mar Marutha simply began the process of the Church of the East accepting those canonical documents which the rest of Christianity accepted. Since his time, there were several updated editions of the ecumenical synods that were received, as you can see in my prior post. For instance, Mar Yahbalaha in 420 geso so far as to furnish an actual request of the patriarch and synod the Church of the East for the Persian emperor to furnish them with texts of the canonical material of their western brethren.

Eventually, the documents of the Ecumenical Synods, or Corpus Canonum, is enlarged for the particular use of the Church of the East by the addition of the documents of the Patriarchal Synods and also a body of authoritative letters and responses. This great body of canonical material is collected in the eight and again in the thirteenth centuries to produce the basic collection of everything considered explicitly canonical in the Church of the East. This collection of canonical material is what we are dealing with in our investigation and it is that document that will be called Synodicon Orientale or the Synodicon of the Church of the East.

Next I will deal with the particular way Chalcedon was accepted into the canonical material of the Church of the East. Given that everyone might not be as familiar with the basic concepts of canon law, I penned this entry to provide some definitions. I hope to post my final entry on Chalcedon in the next few days as it is mostly written.  


Monday, October 8, 2012

Who do you say that I am, Part II: Reception of Chalcedon

The mark of true faith for the Orthodox Churches is the faith of the “Seven Ecumenical Councils” that met between AD 325 and AD 787. For Orthodoxy, as well as the Roman Church, the Ecumenical Council at Chalcedon in AD 451 produced the most enduring creedal statement regarding the person of Christ and is regarded as the touchstone of correct belief. Therefore, the Church of the East accepting and confessing the faith of Chalcedon - its creedal formula as well as the canons put forth in the council - would be a powerful statement of theological closeness between the two churches.

The Decree of Chalcedon expresses the Church’s faith in Christ who is divine and human; two natures united, without division, confusion, separation or change, in one person. Earlier, I posted regarding the Decree of Chalcedon in regard to the first ‘in house’ decree of the Church of the East, The Synod of Mar Aqaq. To read the Decree of Chalcedon as well as a later sample of how the Church of the East digested the meaning of Chalcedon, please see my earlier posting here.
The statements, canons and decision of councils that are accepted by the Church of the East are found in a book named the Synodicon Orientale, which was published by J.B. Chabot in 1902 under the title Synodicon Orientale ou Recuel de Synodes Nestoriens [=SO]. The full Synodicon of the Church of the East has three parts: The Councils of the Westerners (meaning local and ecumenical councils considered authoritative at the time of Chalcedon); the Collection of the Thirteen Patriarchal Synods (of the Church of the East); various letters considered authoritative. Chabot gives us the second part only, the Collection of the Thirteen Patriarchal Synods, and he provides a list of the contents of parts one and three, from which we can hunt down the content, somewhat successfully. It would be a blessing if the Church of the East would print an authoritative Synodicon, in Syriac at least, if not also a careful English translation.

Back to the point - the Assyrian Church of the East accepted Chalcedon as an Ecumenical Council. In J.B. Chabot’s 1902 edition, Synodicon Orientale, there are several expressed statements of the Council of Chalcedon as an accepted council of the Assyrian church. Here are two clear references from the Synodicon of the Church of the East (translations mine):

“The Enumeration of the Books of Canons [Synodal Statements]  which the Church of the East accepts, conforms to, and keeps. Western and Eastern Synods: Apostolic Canons of the Fathers: which are accepted by and by which functions the Holy Apostolic Orthodox Church:

1.    Canons of the Holy Apostles: 21 Canons

2.    Again Those of the Apostles: 81 Canons

3.    Of the Twelve Apostles: 7 sections

4.    Synod of Anqura [Ancyra]: 24 canons

5.     Synod of neoqesarya (Neocaesaria): 14 canons

6.    Synod of Niqia (Nicea): 20 canons

7.    Universal Synod: 73 Canons

8.    Synod of Gangra: 20 canons

9.    Synod of Antioch: 25 canons

10. Synod of Ladyqia: 59 canons

11. Synod of Contantinopolis: 4 canons

12. Synod of Chalcedon: 21 canons.(SO 610)"
Notice that the 12th recognized synod is Chalcedon and is received among the “Eastern and Western Synods”, which is an indication of the ecumenical content of these documents. The Church of the East is explicitly expressing her Orthodoxy in conforming to these canons. Historically speaking, there was a body of canonical material, called the Syntagma Canonum Antiochenum, which was the master collection of canonical material of the ecumenical era. Sometime around AD500 it was translated into Syriac in Mabbug and did not contain Ephesus or the 85 Apostolic Canons until later in the sixth century. It seems that this Syntagma Canonum Antiochenum is what the Church of the East has as the first part of her canonical material.

Also, in the same Synodicon Oritentale of the Church of the East is found the proclamation of the synods accepted by the Church of the East at the time of Mar Awa the patriarch and he reiterates Chalcedon as among the synods the Church of the East sees as ecumenical: “Again, the declaration that was ordained by Mar Awa Patriarch and the Bishops gathered with him…Those of the Synod of the five hundred and sixty seven bishops gathered in Chalcedon” (SO 545) 
For Orthodoxy, the consideration that the Church of the East accepts Chalcedon proposes a new perspective of the Assyrian Church. This does not do away with the question of Nestorius or Theodore of Mopsuestia; however, it does mean that these two churches share Chalcedon as a point of common ground. As the touchstone of Orthodox Christology, the common expression of Chalcedon means that these two Churches certainly have enough to dialogue about. It does not mean, however, that issues such as the condemnation of Nestorius and Theodore of Mopsuestia or the Council of Ephesus are not serious points of contention. Next we will deal with how the text of Chalcedon is preserved in the Church of the East’s documents. What we will be dealing with over the lifetime of this blog is whether Chalcedon is received, interpreted and taught with the same end result in both the Orthodox Church and the Church of the East.

Friday, September 28, 2012

Assyrian Church's Theology of Icons: Part 1

Assyrian Church of the East icon
6th Century
Bibliotéque Nationale, Paris
One of the most common misconceptions about the Assyrian Church of the East is that she does not use icons or is even averse to icons. For many Assyrians this would seem natural and correct as they have not seen icons in their worship and may have been told that the Church of the East rejects icons. All other ancient Christian traditions have icons and it may be shocking to think of an Apostolic church without icons.

The concept that the Church of the East does not have icons in her tradition is a myth. The Assyrian Church does not currently make large use of icons, but they are indeed present in her tradition. The evidence for the use of icons is plentiful, continues well into the fortheenth century, and is found in core documents, canonical writings and liturgical texts. Furthermore, throughout my research I have found no mention of any supression of icons. In this post I’ll provide several examples of the way icons have been written about by the Assyrian Fathers. At a later date I will provide additional information on the topic, as there is much more material to cover than can be enumerated in a single posting.
First, in the Acts of Mari, we find the account of the correspondence between King Abgar the Black and Christ. Abgar, according the Acts of Mar Mari the Apostle, is the king of Edessa the time of Christ. He hears of this Judean King and sends emissaries to receive his message and depict his appearance. Notice the way icons are introduced:

The letter came to Abgar the king, and he received it with great joy. When they related to him the wonders that were performed by Jesus in the land of Judea, he admired and was amazed by the might of God. Since he was not worthy of seeing these things…he found skilled painters and ordered them…to depict the fact of our Lord and bring the depiction…to him. The painters were not able to depict the Lord’s human appearance. When our Lord realized, thought the understanding of His divinity, the love of Abgar for Him and as He saw the painters who endeavored to find the image to depict Him as He was, but failed, He took a cloth and imprinted on it His face…The cloth was placed in the Church of Edessa, where it still remains as a source of all kinds of help.” (A. Harrak, “The Acts of Mar Mari the Apostle”, Writings from the Greco-Roman World II (Atlanta, 2005) found in Die Welt der Gotterbilder, ed. B Groneberd & H Spieckermann, pg 327
Now the Abgar account is not easily verified by history, but is a matter of faith especially for Syriac and Armenian Christians. It forms a vital part of the identity of the Assyrian Church. It is where Assyrian Christians trace their spiritual roots to as much as St Peter for Rome or St Mark for Alexandria.
The Church of the East’s earliest historical document includes the first recorded attempt to produce an icon of Our Lord, God and Savior. Notice what it calls the icon: the depiction of the Lord’s human appearance. This will become the title of the Mandylion icon (“Made without hands”) in later texts of the Church of the East. The Church of the East, beyond other traditions, fixes the tradition of the icon as a direct inheritance from Our Lord himself and, since before iconoclasm, recognizes the Christological impact that icons have. God the Son was incarnate and therefore we can depict the Son of God in his humanity.

Second, the Rite of Consecrating an Altar with Oil contains instructions of what A Church of the East altar is to have. After sanctifying the tbelayta (also called dappa or cursya, being a board of fruit-wood which is used much as an antimension is in the Byzantine Churches), the elements necessary for a liturgy are set upon the altar. Here are the rubrics that describe that, which follow the anointing of the altar and the tbelayta:
“And now they put all of the sacred vessels, with which they serve the holy mysteries: the paten and chalice and fans; the icon on high, and the aer and veils and stoles; and the vestments of the altar: except the cross and Gospel-Book.(ܛܟܼܣܐ ܕܟܗ̈ܢܐ ܕܥܕܬܐ ܕܡܕܢܚܐ܆ܡܫܠ̱ܝܐܝܬܼ ܐܝܟ ܛܘܟܣܐ ܕܕܝܪܐ ܥܠܝܬܐ، ܩܫ܊ ܝܘܣܦ ܕܒܝܬ ܩܠܝܬܐ، ܡܘܨܠ. 1928. ܦܬ 399”) (Priest Service Book of the Church of the East, Ed. J. Kelaita (Mosul, 1928), pg 399-400).

The Rite of Consecrating an Altar with Oil dates to Mar Ishoyahb III, the Patriarch (649-659) who has a tremendous impact on the canonical offices, three liturgies as well as sacraments of the Church of the East. The rite as contained in the current and official Priest’s Service Book contains the rubric and it has not been amended to discount the role of the icon. When an altar is consecrated, the rubrics still require the icon although it has not been done in practice for some time. Indeed, according to this rite, the icon on high is counted amongst the necessary items needed to serve a liturgy, not within the secondary items such as the censer, zone-belt, alb, service book, etc. The icon, infers the rubric of Mar Ishoyahb, is essential rather than optional for every liturgy.

Third and last to consider in this first posting on the Church of the East’s use of icons is the Anthem of the Sanctuary for the Feast of the Holy Cross:
“Of the Sanctuary. Glory…Thine church, O Savior, bears a heavenly treasury and riches in the mysteries and types that thou hast bestowed upon her and in which she takes refuge and hope: the Great Book of Thine Proclamation, the worshiped wood of Thine cross, the beautiful icon of Thine humanity; these great mysteries of her salvation. ܟܬܒܐ ܕܩܕܡ ܘܕܒܬܐ ܘܕܚܘܕܪܐ ܘܕܟܫܟܘܠ ܘܕܓܙܐ ܘܩܠܐ ܕܥܘܕܖ̈ܢܐ ܥܡ ܟܬܒܐ ܕܡܙܡܘܪܐ. (ܡܪܝ ܬܐܘܡܐ ܕܪܡܘ. ܬܪܝܫܘܪ، 1962 ܬܫܡܒ. )
The Church of the East not only venerates icons but she equates them with the Holy Cross and the Holy Gospel. This places the icon purposefully with the most revered objects of the Assyrian Church and not as a mere incidental to worship. Why icons disappear from common use is a great question for a future entry (or perhaps a reader to investigate and share with us). I personally suspect the rise of Islam, which is intensly iconoclastic, as a cause of the current lack of icons.

The whole church prays the above Anthem, during the liturgy on the Feast of the Cross. When an altar is anointed the clergy read the rubrics requiring the placement of the icon. While the matter of Christology requires study and dialogue, it is clear that icons are really part of the tradition, but a neglected part.
The lack of icons does not mean a lack of venerating the Christ-sanctified matter of the Cross and Gospel-book. Indeed, in every Assyrian Church there are veneration stands (proskynisitaria/analogia) with a Gospel-book and cross. They are venerated on entering the church, before receiving the precious gifts and when one leaves. Some images of ancient icons of the Church of the East, more bits of evidence, and some examples from Church architechture and cited use of icons will be the topic of a future post.

My hope is that when my fellow Assyrians communicate about their faith with my fellow Orthodox Christians, the rejection of icons might not be a point of separation. Indeed, it is not only Orthodox Christians who can learn about the Syriac heritage of the Church by encountering the Church of the East, but Assyrians who can learn about forgotten bits of their own history by encountering the challenge of learning about and describing their Church to the Orthodox.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

St Ephraim's Model of the Incarnation

Saint Ephraim the Syrian (Mar Aprim Raba) is universally venerated across Churches and represents a key bridge to understanding the Syriac Christological mind. Saint Ephraim was not involved in Ephesus or Chalcedon as he reposed in 372 (Bejan, Paul Acta Martyrum et Sanctorum, Vol. IV (Otto Harrassowitz 1892) pg. 664). Many of Saint Ephraim’s writings became strong hymnographical and even structural elements of the liturgical tradition of the Assyrian Church of the East
Saint Ephraim’s large quantity and heavenly quality of liturgical composition lends a particularly ephramite voice to not only the liturgy and prayer of the Church of the East but also to her theology. Therefore, before we spend more time analyzing the Orthodoxy or heterodoxy (un-orthodoxy) of the documents and theology of the Church of the East, let us look at what language our beloved and God-pleasing father in Christ, Ephraim the Great, imparted upon the Church of the East. While later personalities such as Theodore of Mopsuestia and Nestorius of Constantinople have controversial teachings regarding the personhood of Jesus Christ, these teachings have to be understood and examined separately from the use of phrases that are merely borrowed from Saint Ephraim and the earlier tradition of the Church. Before we examine Theodore or Nestorius, we will separate out the orthodox and venerated language of Saint Ephraim, so we can deal with the writings of later figures more clearly.

Especially, I’m looking to see if St Ephraim uses language such as God the Son dwelt in humanity; God the Son wore humanity as a garment; God dwelt in the temple of man. These phrases would later be charged as indicating an imperfect union or mere dwelling of divinity in humanity. Of course, St Ephraim fully believed in and defended the complete humanity and divinity of Christ in one person. He was at Nicaea and his writings bear out his clear and pure faith. I’m not going to embark on proving St Ephraim’s Orthodoxy; those who want that can avail themselves of the awesome translations out there and do some very uplifting reading—reading him is great even if you are positive of his Orthodoxy which I sure hope you are!.
Here is our first quote from the second of the Hymns on the Nativity (Schaff, Philip Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Second Series, Vol. 13
Blessed be the Physician Who came down and amputated without pain, and healed wounds with a medicine that was not harsh. His Son became a Medicine that showed sinners mercy. Blessed be He Who dwelt in the womb, and wrought therein a perfect Temple, that He might dwell in it, a Throne that He might be in it, a Garment that He might be arrayed in it, and a Weapon that He might conquer in it.
St Ephraim calls the humanity taken from a virgin a Temple, a Throne, a Garment and even A Weapon. Above, St Ephraim does not call the womb the temple but what was “wrought therein”, which is the human nature of Jesus Christ; here St Ephraim does not mean that God the Son was wrought in the womb of the Virgin but the humanity of the incarnation. Let us concentrate on the words Temple and Garment and see how much he uses them just in the Hymns on the Nativity.

And from Hymn 11 a verse composed by St Ephraim as if spoken by the Blessed Virgin:
The Son of the Most High came and dwelt in me, and I became His Mother; and as by a second birth I brought Him forth so did He bring me forth by the second birth, because He put His Mother's garments on, she clothed her body with His glory.

Clearly here St Ephraim does not mean “put his Mother’s garments on” literally but as the Son of the Most High (Second Person of the Trinity) put on the garments of fallen mankind. This is St Ephraim’s language and it will be used by scores of Christians thereafter.
In her virginity Eve put on the leaves of shame: Your Mother put on in her Virginity the garment of Glory that suffices for all. She gave the little vest of the Body to Him that covers all. (Hymn 12)
Here St Ephraim not only uses the language of God the Son receiving the “little vest of the body” from the Virgin, but he also expresses the theology of the Garment. Succinctly, it is the idea that Adam and Eve were vested in a garment of Grace in Eden and when they sinned they lost that garment, and that is why they notice their nudity. Christ by vesting himself in the garment of humanity, undergoing suffering and the cross, sanctifies the garment of humanity (human nature) and we too die to the old man of sin—a soiled garment--and arise with a new and unblemished garment in baptism. Therefore as Christ put us on, we may put him on:
Eve, again, was a nest and a den for the accursed serpent that entered in and dwelt in her. His evil counsel became bread to her that she might become dust. You are our Bread, and You are also [of] our race and our garment of glory. (Hymn 12)
Finally, it is summed up in Hymn 16, verses 12 and 13:
He was wrapped meanly in swaddling clothes, and offerings were offered Him.— He put on garments in youth, and from them there came forth helps: He put on the waters of baptism, and from them there shone forth beams:— He put on linen cloths in death, and in them were shown forth triumphs; with His humiliations, His exaltations.

 All these are the changes of raiment, which Mercy put off and put on—when He strove to put on Adam, the glory which he had put off.— He was wrapped in swaddling-clothes as Adam with leaves; and clad in garments instead of skins.— He was baptized for Adam's sin, and buried for Adam's death:— He rose and raised Adam into Glory.

The refrain of these versus when chanted is: “Blessed be He Who joined His Glory to His Passion!” The joining of the Glory of God the Son to the passion, on the cross, of the humanity taken from the Virgin is what hypostatic union is about (or prosopic union, if we’re using later Assyrian Church writers). While we maintain the distinctions and natures of divinity and humanity separately, we speak of one Christ and he who underwent passion as the same as the Glorious one.

Many of the writers and thinkers who later used St Ephraim’s language of garment and temple to speak of Christ’s divinity were accused of Nestorian heresy. I do not believe for one instance that St Ephraim was a heretic. He works out an entire theology of salvation taking into account the fall (loss of garment), the incarnation (God puts on the garment of mankind), passion, resurrection and our own salvation, especially through baptism. The Hymns on Nativity are freely available at the URL sited above and are worth reading not only as theological works but also gorgeous prayers of the Church Universal.
The purpose of this entry is to establish a sense of the orthodox and holy use of St Ephraim’s language as part of the Church’s inheritance. Of course, the Orthodox Church did not condemn the usage of temple or garment terminology itself. Many Orthodox thinkers have pointed out that such language could be interpreted as God the Son merely dwelling in Jesus Christ, a separate person inhabited by the separate person of God the Son, but this just means that temple/garment terminology can be used in the wrong way, which is an abuse of its Orthodox origins.

What we can recover is a love of the poetry and depth in Saint Ephraim’s verse commentaries. With Chalcedon firmly grounding us, we can pray and be strengthened by the words of our Syriac heritage. Assyrians too can recover a sense of this ancient and poetic way of describing our salvation for it is a theology that later more scholastic writers neglect. May the prayers and intercessions of Saint Ephraim the Great strengthen us all.

Saturday, September 8, 2012

"Who do you say that I am?" (Part 1)

Our Lord asked his disciples: “Who do you say that I am?” (Mark 8.29) This question is a important one to answer for it requires us to put into words not only that we believe but who we believe in. Well, the Church Catholic and Universal dealt with this for centuries and during the process great struggles emerged to preserve the identity of Christ as truly God and truly man, in one person and God himself incarnate out of his love and for our salvation. Examples of obvious bad answers to our Lord’s question are Arius who said that Christ is the first created but not God and Euteches who said that he is one divine nature that fused together human and divine natures. However, what does the Church of the East believe? For starters let us look at the Synodal Decree of the Synod of AD 486 under Mar Aqaq the Catholicos (translation mine):

Our belief is in the dispensation of Christ, confessed in two natures, of his divinity and of his humanity. There is no man among us who mixes, comingles or confuses the properties of these two natures, but rather we confess that the characteristics that pertain to the divinity and those that pertain to the humanity of Christ are fixed and are kept in one Lordship and one subject of worship, so too we reiterate that [we speak] of the distinction of natures as due to the perfect and complete union (naquiputha gmirta) and lack of separation that there is from the divinity to the humanity. If a man thinks or teaches differently: that suffering and change adheres to the divinity of Christ: and [someone] does not preserve the doctrine of unity in the person of our Savior [as] perfect God and perfect man, let him be anathema. (JB Chabot, ed., Synodicon Orientale ou Recuel de Synodes Nestorienes (Imprimerie Nationale, 1902, 55))

Notice what it says about Christ’s natures (kyane). They are unmixed, uncomingled and unconfused. Also about Christ being one and not two beings: there is only one subject of worship in Christ. That means that one cannot worship the Son of God separate from the humanity that he took at the incarnation. The term used by the Assyrian Church of the East to define how divine and human are united is Naqiputha Gmirta. This word signifies the union of two things that retain themselves but are joined together in cohesion; also notice that the sense of the cohesion of Divine and Human in Christ is intensified by the adjective Gmirta, which can be translated as completely or perfectly. The statement also precludes the idea that God the Son, in his divine nature, died; of course this does not mean that the Person of God the Son, who is perfect God and perfect man, did not die on the Cross, but merely precludes that divine nature itself died.

Just 35 years earlier, the Holy Fathers of the Church in the “West” had met in Chalcedon and presented this definition of the Church:

So, following the saintly fathers, we all with one voice teach the confession of one and the same Son, our Lord Jesus Christ: the same perfect in divinity and perfect in humanity, the same truly God and truly man, of a rational soul and a body; consubstantial with the Father as regards his divinity, and the same consubstantial with us as regards his humanity; like us in all respects except for sin; begotten before the ages from the Father as regards his divinity, and in the last days the same for us and for our salvation from Mary, the virgin God-bearer as regards his humanity; one and the same Christ, Son, Lord, only-begotten, acknowledged in two natures which undergo no confusion, no change, no division, no separation; at no point was the difference between the natures taken away through the union, but rather the property of both natures is preserved and comes together into a single person and a single subsistent being; he is not parted or divided into two persons, but is one and the same only-begotten Son, God, Word, Lord Jesus Christ, just as the prophets taught from the beginning about him, and as the Lord Jesus Christ himself instructed us, and as the creed of the fathers handed it down to us.

These two statements are critical to their respective churches and they indicate a certain degree of shared belief in Christology. Clearly, the statement Synod of Mar Aqaq serves to provide some basic and critical safeguards against Nestorianism in that it procludes the concept of two Christs and insists on a full and complete union of the two natures of Christ. 

Still, one Orthodox-seeming synodal statment does not prove the orthodoxy of the Church of the East. There is the Assyrian Church's reception of Chalcedon to be considered--yes the Assyrian Church of the East does have Chalcedon as an Ecumenical Synod, which includes a necessary treatment of the term Theotokos and some more dealing with hypostasis. The question is how does the Church of the East develop her theology after Mar Aqaq's Synod and does she remain Chalcedonian in her beliefs? 

Friday, August 17, 2012

Person and Face: Points of Union

Now that we know that a kyana is a universal nature and a qnuma is the instance of a nature, we can move on to two new terms—person and face. In the Assyrian Church of the East, they confess a divine kyana and qnuma in Christ and a human kyana and qnuma in Christ. But where is there unity in Christ? We need parsupa and apay to understand the language on “oneness in Christ”.

Here the vocabulary of unity in the person of Christ: parsupa (person) and apay (face). Prosopon-person according to the post-Chalcedon Greek definition is the appearance of a hypostasis-person. It is the face and external appearance. Again, the Church of the East uses a different definition.
In the Church of the East, the parsupa (person or prosopon) is the ontological whole of the being - the Syriac word “apay” (face) describes the outward appearance. Hence, when the Greek of II Cor 4.6 is translated: “For it is the God who commanded light to shine out of darkness, who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the prosopon of Jesus Christ”, it is understood  as “face of Jesus Christ”. But from the  Peshitta’s Syriac, which has parsupa exactly where the Greek has prosopon, it is understood as “person of Jesus Christ”.

Here are some quick definitions which will be supported by the quotes that follow.
Parsupa (Person; Syriac version of Prosopon): a person fully enfleshed. The complex reality of an individual as an expression of his qnuma-nature.

Apay (Face): the outward appearance of a person. The face and manifestation of the person.
For our definition of parsupa and apay, let us reference Mar Yokhannan Bar Zo’by’s The Book of Harmonious Texture. The section I quote from is titled “On the difference between Kyana and Qnuma: and Qnuma from Parsupa: and Parsupa from Apay.  The title already lends itself to an understanding of these four words, but Mar Yokhannan has more to offer (translation mine):

Now on person, that person is different from qnuma. Parsopa is different from qnuma in that it possesses qualities, such as beauty, hatefulness, ugliness or darkness. But qnuma has only one attribute because it is singular [ie, a particular instance of a general nature]. But a person has many [attributes or qualities] because it is a multitude of charicteristics such as being the son of so and so, beautiful or ugly. These things pertain to parsopa, which is the formation or type (yuqna) of the qnuma.” (ܡܪܓܢܝܬܼܐ ܕܥܠ ܫܪܪܐ ܕܟܪܣܛܝܢܘܬܐ.ܩܫ ܝܘܣܦ ܒܝܬ ܩܠܝܛܐ ܡܘܨܠ ܡܛܒܥܬܐ ܐܬܘܪܝܬܐ 1924 pg 99)

Then, to complete our new Syriac terms, Mar Yokhannan gives us the difference between parsopa-person and apay-face: “Now on person, that person is different than face in that it does not present the concrete image to the mind. The face is the appearance, but the person is not the concrete outer form.”( ܡܪܓܢܝܬܼܐ  pg 99)

To summarize: qnuma is only the reality of a nature, but when we want to speak of characteristics or expressions that come from the qnuma, then we move into speaking of a parsupa. Parsupa is very much what we think of as a person or individual, except that in Syriac, we distinguish the outer form with a different word: apay or face. For example, I am an instance of human kyana, so I have a human qnuma (simply human nature vis-à-vis a body, soul and spirit) which is evident in that it expresses a parsopa-person which is depicted in my apay-appearance.