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.


  1. Don't later ecumenical/imperial councils further clarify Chalcedon? Would the Church of the East accept those, if only as local councils?

    This thing of "seven" (really eight) imperial councils is silliness, is it not? The Byzantine Orthodox churches accept many other local councils as universally binding (as with the Palamite councils, no?), while the Oriental Orthodox Churches reject five of the eight due to the schism between rigorists supporting Sts. Cyril and Severus' views and those trying to keep Nestorius' sympathizers in the Church...

    1. John,

      "Ecumenical" just refers to their status as encompassing the church households of the Roman Empire.

      Ecumenical is not a magic word.