On the Terminology of Chalcedon

Fr. Georges Florovsky 1893-1979

…[W]e should never believe that dogmatic terminologies of the past are simply temporary formulations without continuing significance. There cannot be a fruitful discussion on dogmatical differences without careful reference to historical terminology. We are bound to use the terms; through these we confess the truth, guided by the Holy Spirit in the Church. We are not imprisoned by terminologies; but we are bound by the spirit, if not the letter, of the Fathers and their understanding of Christian truth.

I do not think our separation [with Non-Chalcedonians] is due only to historical misunderstandings about the terms physis, hypostasis, ousia, prosopon, etc. These terms have taken a definite sense in the effort of the whole undivided Church to voice the one truth of the revelation of God. They used the Greek language. Well, Greek is the language of the New Testament. Everything in early Christianity is Greek. We are all Greeks in our thinking as Christians. This is not meant in a narrow nationalistic sense, but as part of our common spiritual and intellectual background. The Fathers worked out an interpretation from which we simply cannot escape. They had to clothe the event of revelation in understandable language and categories. The difficulty was there right from the beginning, to understand fully these categories and interpret them fully in the realm of soteriology and anthropology. The special difficulty was really to interpret “hypostasis” in regard to the union of the two natures. Chalcedon emphasized the atreptos [without change]. This implies that in One hypostasis of the Incarnate Logos humanity was present in its absolute completeness — teleios anthropos, although it was the proper humanity of the Logos. The term physis is used in the Chalcedonian definition precisely for the purpose to emphasize this “completeness”. In fact, atreptos and teleios anthropos belong indivisibly together. Again, the “complete” human “nature” is free of sin, sin being a reduction of human nature to subhuman condition.

At this point I want to suggest a distinction which I have made already many years ago, in my Russian book, The Byzantine Fathers. There are, in fact, two different kinds of dyophysitism — I call them respectively: symmetrical and asymmetrical. Nestorianism is a symmetrical dyophysitism: there is strict and complete parallelism of two natures which lead inevitably to the duality of prosopa or subjects, which may be united only in unity of function — this is the meaning of the Nestorian prosopon tes henoseos, which coordinates the two “natural” prosopa. The dyophysitism of Chalcedon is, on the contrary, an asymmetrical dyophysitism: there is but one hypostasis, as the subject of all attributions, although the distinction of Divine and human natures is carefully safeguarded. The duality of prosopa is emphatically rejected. The crux of the definition is precisely here: hena kai ton auton. “Humanity” is included in the Divine hypostasis and exists, as it were, within this one hypostasis. There is no symmetry: two natures, but one hypostasis. The human nature is, as it were, sustained by the Divine hypostasis: enhypostatos. Indeed, this enhypostasia, as it has been explained in the later Byzantine theology, indicates a different status of Christ’s humanity in comparison with the humanity of “ordinary” men — psiloi anthropoi. It is the humanity of the Logos. Yet, in character it is “consubstantial” with the humanity of men. But Christ is not a man, although kata ten anthropoteta He is homoousios hemin. The “status” of His humanity, however, is different from ours: choris hamartias. This has a decisive soteriological significance: Christ was exempt from the inevitability of death, and consequently His death was a voluntary death, or free sacrifice. It would be out of place to develop this idea now any longer. But it may be helpful to say a word or two on the Christological significance of our conception of Sin, in its relationship to human “nature”. Again, one may develop two basic conceptions of man, which I use to denote as anthropological maximalism and anthropological minimalism. The obvious instances are: Pelagius, on the one hand, and Augustine, on the other. The “high” conception of man leads inevitably to low Christology: man needs but a pattern of perfection and example to follow. This is precisely the line of Nestorius. On the other hand, a pessimistic anthropology requires a “maximalist” Christology. In this case man needs, in the phrase of St. Gregory of Nazianzus, “God Incarnate” as his Savior.

Here, I have to offer the solution that I suggested in a paper published only in Russian several years ago. One has to speak of symmetrical and asymmetrical dyophysitism. The symmetrical, consistent with the formula true God, and true man, accepts that ontologically there is an equal share of divinity and humanity in the one hypostasis of Christ, but further it accepts that there is an ontological identification of the humanity of Christ with humanity in general. This can lead to a crypto-Nestorian distinction or even separation of two persons. Well, can you say that Christ was of two hypostases? This can lead to maximalist conception of man which can result in a maximalist conception of the Incarnation.

Chalcedon was clearly for asymmetrical dyophisitism. The humanity of Christ is proper to the humanity that the Divine Logos fully and atreptos assumed. There is, however, a certain dissimilarity between humanity in general and humanity of Christ as the Divine Logos, because this humanity is sinless and incorruptible. You can say that Christ was free from the necessity to die. The Augustinian position seems not to pay so much attention to this dissimilarity and the Monophysites risk also keeping this dissimilarity in a consistent way by slipping to the position of absolute ontological consubstantiality which denies in Christ the full qualities of humanity in general. (Aug. 12th, 1964 Discussion on the Paper “Chalcedonians and Monophysites After Chalcedon” by The Rev. Professor J. Meyendorff. Morning Session)

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