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?


  1. "the individuality of either of the two natures being rather preserved, and running together in one Person and two Qnumi".

    So, Chalcedon is being taken as affirmation of a prosopic, rather than hypostatic (qnuma) union, which is the teaching of Theodore of Mopsuestia, Nestorius, and their tradition. I don't see how attaching the name 'Chalcedon' to this doctrine gets us very far ecumenically.

    Further, the gloss on Chalcedon given at Second Constantinople-- which canonized Cyril's 12 Anathemas-- is very hard to reconcile with the Church of the East's Christology...

  2. @ Samn!

    Why do you equate 'Qnoma' with 'hypostasis'? That has been the error to this very day, and you are repeating the same commonplace cliche's of a theology which has not adequately and genuinely sought to understand the Christological parlance of the Church of the East. Qnoma and hypostasis are not the same!!! Qnoma is more expressive of nature (physis) than hypostasis. Nature (kyana/physis) is the abstract, while Qnoma is the concrete, individuated nature. Qnoma does not denote personality nor will. Please understand that. Thank you and God bless+

  3. "Nature (kyana/physis) is the abstract, while Qnoma is the concrete, individuated nature." Orthodox would agree with this-- this is almost exactly the definition given to 'hypostasis' in the writings of John of Damascus. And of course, when Orthodox use Arabic they translate 'hypostasis' as 'uqnum', and when in the past they used Syriac, it was always translated 'qnuma'.

    In Orthodox theology, hypostasis does not imply will. According to the Sixth Ecumenical Council, will is on the level of nature, and not hypostasis or prosopon. This is why the we talk about two wills and activities in Christ, while the Church of the East, which puts will at the level of parsopa, talks about one will.

    The heart of the matter here is that the Orthodox talk of one concrete particular in Christ (hypostatic union), while the Church of the East talks about two particulars within Christ, united on the level of personality and will (prosopic union).

    1. Your Grace, thank you for your clarification. It is extremely valuable to have the word of a hierarch of the Church of the East who stands as the secretary of the Holy Synod.
      Samn!, first off thank you for your challenges to my implications and assertions. They are deeply appreciated as I had hoped using a blog would make this more of a discussion where we can learn from various voices and perspectives. I hope to hear more of such honest reflection.
      I posted earlier on the terms in order to help clarify the basic terms: and
      The topic is complex and I have to rely on layers of postings to get my point across so one has to read the blog from the beginning to get my full point—a fault of the medium and author, I admit.
      My read of the synodal documents and the Book of Union is that there is a very clear one particular in Christ that has two natures. Qnuma simply means a nature that exists in a sense beyond just "mankind" or "divinity". Indeed, anyone who speaks of two particulars is anathemitized by the Synod of Mar Aqaq, which you can read here

    2. Liturgically, one subject and one referent in Christ is maintained. For instance, the daily offices begin with “We worship they divinity and humanity without division, O Lord”. The idioms are communicated, even when speaking of the suffering on the cross.
      According to the Book of the Harmonious Texture, the level of personality and will are not expressed by parsupa but by Ape or “Face”. Parsupa is used exactly the way Chalcedon uses Hypostasis. I really recommend looking at my prior posts on the terms, linked above, because they offer Assyrian patristic references to define the terms. As far as the discussion of wills is concerned, perhaps His Grace can offer more? My sense is that the Church of the East is very Aristotelian in her usage of terms so the will is as it functions rather than theoretically. I’ll have to look at the Book of Harmonious Texture again as it may address the issue.
      We must also keep in mind the use and meaning of hypostasis is rather fluid. According to First Nicea we anathematize anyone who speaks of the Son of God as another hypostasis or ousia; hypostasis taken as a synonymn of ousia. Terms are just referents that are empty without understanding the sense they are used in; context provides meaning. What I’m trying to do is to honestly provide the context of the terms as used in the Church of the East. I will not be so disingenuous as to use a definition from Alexandria or Rome to understand a Persian or visa-versa. I’m using definitions from St Ephraim the Great and later East Syriac writers.
      Also, the Orthodox Church in her wisdom never anathematized or formally broke communion with the Church of the East; correct me on that one, if I’m wrong. We (Antioch and Constantinople) enjoyed both Mar Ishoyahb I and III’s visits in the seventh century and invited them to serve the liturgy that we may receive at their hands—after appropriate Christological statements were compared. The visit of Ishoyahb III was after the last Assyrian Christological council of AD 612. If I am not mistaken, it is the Church of the East that anathematizes us for NOT teaching two natures! Gessi, Your Grace, correct on that one, if I got it wrong. See, to them a nature without a qnuma cannot exist in reality but only hypothetically (St Ephraim says that).
      My blog was inspired by the last of Middle Eastern Christianity being threatened with extinction and seeing both my Antiochian Orthodox and Assyrian brethren disappearing from their homeland. It seems that when we meet in person we see each other as the same, but too quickly we condemn in abstentia and assumed what is meant by the other. We have allowed the deceiver to divide us and it is time we assume each other’s Orthodoxy and approach in friendship to see if the assumed Orthodoxy is born out in deed and truth. I’m not speaking of false union; I want real theological debate like we’re having. But, if we are divided by a simple misunderstanding and we allowed that to happen, shall we be surprised if God allows Islam to condemn us by the sword? Usually, conquerors need to divide then conquer. Instead, we divided and let them conquer.

      Thank you again,

      Rev Ephraim Alkhas

  4. Fr Ephraim,

    In one of the prior posts, you state that "When Chalcedonian Orthodox use the corresponding term, Hypostasis, we mean a person."

    Doesn't that depend on what you mean by 'person'? The post-Chalcedonian Greek and Arab theological tradition is very, very Aristotelian. Even before then, the distinction between secondary and primary substance is precisely how most modern scholars understand the Cappadocians' use of the terms ousia and hypostasis, for example. John of Damascus, in Chapter 42 of his Dialectica, is even more clear about this:

    "[hypostasis] means the existence of an individual substance in itself. In this sense it signifies the individual (to atomon), that which is numerically different, which is to say, Peter and Paul, or that certain horse. [...] the term hypostasis has been properly applied to the individual, since in the hypostasis the substance, to which the accidents have been added, actually subsist."

    The general philosophical slogan "ouk estin physis anypostatos" is common to all the Christological groups. This is why the Damascene uses the term 'enypostaton' to describe the human nature that is subsistent in the hypostasis of the Word, along with the divine nature, and why Severus of Antioch has to posit the rather inelegant 'non-subsisting hypostasis' to solve this problem.

    So, I'm not really understanding where the difference is between the Church of the East's understanding of 'qnoma' and the post-Chalcedonian Orthodox understanding of 'hypostasis'. But, to ask the question that's really the point here, how can a 'qnoma' be "the concrete, individuated nature", as both the Church of the East and the Damscene agree, and not also be a subject when it comes to predication, receiving accidents, etc? Certainly, for Theodore of Mopsuestia, the two hypostaseis very much can be two distinct subjects.

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    2. Great blog, Fr. Ephraim!

      Samn!: Qnoma only denotes what is common to the nature. A human qnoma denotes a mind, body, soul etc. But it does not include anything distinctive. Such characteristics are only on the level of parsopa. It makes no sense to question how a qnoma cannot have characteristics predicated to it, since it is simply so by definition.

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  6. Fr. Ephraim,

    I am confused by this blog. It appears to me that you are claiming that the Assyrian church of the east is part of the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church. Maybe I am misreading your statement "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".
    If you are a priest in the One True Church Of Christ (Eastern Orthodox Church) then why are you proclaiming the heretical Assyrian church of the east as being the true church? If indeed that is what you are doing. It seems like you are trying to make a case that they are not heretical and in fact theologically agree with the Orthodox Church. Yet if they did agree they would not object to the council of Ephesus which was accepted at Chalcedon and they would not have changed the Chalcedonian wording. The counclil of Chalcedon accepted the Council of Ephesus so to accept Chalcedon is to accept Ephesus. The Holy Fathers at Chalcedon accepted the teachings of St. Cyril of Alexandria and checked the tome of St Leo the Great against his writings. Perhaps I'm missing the point of what you are doing with this blog but if indeed you are saying they are Orthodox then can you show proof that they accept St. Cyril of Alexandria and his teachings?

    1. Dear Devin,

      The statement simply serves to indicate that in her canonical understanding (the Church of the East does not consider herself heretical) there is a sense of a larger body of Christ and the authority of Ecumenical Councils does exist. This was to set the scene for understanding canonical material. By the way we do recognize St Isaac of Nineveh as a saint (circa 700) and have had two patriarchs of the Assyrian Church of the East serve on the altar of Hagia Sofia two centuries after Ephesus. So I'm just trying to tie together some history.

      If someone thought the word hypostasis means nature, and they agreed to Chalcedon, which uses the term one hypostasis of union, they would, in effect, be one-nature Christians (mono/mia/heno-physites); such an acceptance of Chalcedon would be problematic to Eastern Orthodox faith, no? I simply show that the Church of the East agrees with Chalcedon in so far as she understands it to mean two natures in one person. So she inserts qnuma, but then defines qnuma like we define physis/nature. Confusing? yes.

      This blog is not a manifesto nor is it official dialogue. It is just a place for me to share some translations and considerations I have regarding this chapter in the history of Christianity.

      People are not made heretics or saints by thinking a particular saint's writings are all perfect. Perhaps it would be more Christian to ask Assyrians what they believe and see if there is anything that warrants a loving word towards correction. What is the actual substance of the faith a people hold?


      Fr Ephraim

    2. Dear father Ephraim,
      wonderful to find your blog and your serious approach in love to the realities of our history, including the non-condemnation of the Church of the East.

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  8. Christ is Risen! I have enjoyed this blog very much over the last few months. I hope you have some new posts coming soon.

    1. Indeed He is Risen!

      I do indeed have some new posts coming. Thank you for the encouragement.

  9. Father Ephraim,

    I want to first thank you for creating this blog. It is great to see a fellow Orthodox teach the connection the Orthodox and Church of the East once had.
    My sister had married into a Orthodox family belonging to the Orthodox Church of Jerusalem. Prior to the marriage, my sister was asked by the priest to be rebaptized (her baptism was considered "unholy"). After the marriage the priest told my sister she should no longer take holy Qurbana from the Church of the East. I was saddened to see what she had to go through. My question is, does every Orthodox church follow these steps? Or do rules differ from church to church?
    Thank you father

  10. Khaty Ninveh:

    The Assyrian Church of the East has had various amounts of contact and mutual recognition with Orthodox Churches. During the early 20th century the Russian Orthodox Church was quite close to opening up communion with the Church of the East.

    The canons of the Orthodox Church require "monophysites and nestorians" to be accepted into Orthodoxy by "confession of faith". This means an explicit condemnation of the teaching that Christ is two persons or two subjects of worship (nestorianism). It also means an affirmation of the title "birthgiver unto God". So the person would accept Orthodox expression and faith (which they may already have had) and be admitted to communion.

    Alternately, some bishops take the more strict route and receive Assyrians by chrismation or mshekhta bmeshkha dmshikhuta. Baptism would absolutely not take place and be quite inappropriate as Assyrians are validly baptized by an Apostolic Church.

    As a canonical rule, Orthodoxy receives Assyrian Christians by their confession of Orthodox faith. Anyone baptized in the Assyrian Church would be considered validly baptized. I was taught this in seminary and it is what our canons dictate. Whether their chrism is accepted varies according to the bishop.

    Now, because the Assyrian Church and the Orthodox Churches have not had an opportunity to dialogue about their faith, there is no official status on the relationship between the two. Therefore, Assyrian Christians would not be admitted to the Eucharist in an Orthodox Church.

    It is sad to hear what happened with your sister. It does not represent Orthodoxy.


    Qasha Aprim

  11. Thank you for the reply Qasha. After a week of trying to compromise, the option of mshekhta bmeshkha was offered. My cousin and her husband(both Church of the East members) were married in a Syriac Orthodox church by a Syriac Orthodox priest in Lebanon without any problems. This was the reason why I asked if rules differed.
    I also want to apologize for not recognizing your last name.Few months ago my 3yr old niece (half Assyrian) asked me to teach her the Assyrian alphabet. I had searched online for childrens videos and came across your wife's nursery rhyme video. Till this day my niece watches and sings along. We will be ordering the puzzle set from Alap Beth soon. Thank you both very much!

  12. Fr. I really love this blog. Please keep posting. I can honestly say I didn't know anything about the Church of the East before stumbling onto this site. Now I have hope of mutual understanding and reconciliation.

  13. I too would like to see further posts. I find your blog very informative. I am Antiochian Orthodox and I know very little about the Assyrian Church of the East.

  14. Hi Dear,

    i Like Your Blog Very Much..I see Daily Your Blog ,is A Very Usefull For me.

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