On Chalcedon and Semantics

uec_gr_athos_great_lavra_church_athanasius_fourth_ecumenical_councilFr. Georges Florovsky 1893-1979

I do not think our separation [with Anti-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. (Aug. 12th, 1964 Discussion on the Paper “Chalcedonians and Monophysites After Chalcedon” by The Rev. Professor J. Meyendorff. Morning Session)

Jaroslav Pelikan 1923-2006

Even more than the christological controversies before Chalcedon the continuing debate after Chalcedon was shaped by non-theological factors, ranging from mob rule and athletic rivalry to military promotions and the domestic intrigues of the imperial household… Nevertheless, the religious, liturgical, and dogmatic import of the debate must not be minimized because of any of this. For the post-Chalcedonian conflicts made it clear that as the settlement of the dogma of the Trinity at Nicea and Constantinople had reopened the christological question, so the settlement of the dogma of the two natures in Christ at Ephesus and Chalcedon reopened the trinitarian question, as well as the other fundamental presupposition of christological doctrine, the question of soteriology. The controversy had come full circle. (The Emergence of the Catholic Tradition 100-600, p. 266-267)

Although the reasons for this continuing schism over the dogma of the Person of Christ lie in large measure outside the history of doctrine, it would be sheer reductionism to suppose, as many modern interpreters have, that there were no genuine doctrinal issues at stake. (The Spirit of Eastern Christendom 600-1700, p. 37-38)

Fr. John McGuckin

[T]he Christological difficulties between the separated Orthodox communions do not thereby disappear by lexicological magic, as if they never existed outside the realm of semantic confusion and misunderstanding…

Is this double speak to be at once Miaphysite and Dyophysite? Not for those who understand the patristic semantics; because in the first phrase physis means more or less what hypostasis came to mean, and still means now. And in the second affirmation, in the Chalcedonian dyophysite language, physis means no more than a set of natural attributes deductible from observation, but certainly no longer the archaic sense of ‘concrete instantiation’. Thus we affirm in the Miaphysite phrase that the Incarnate Lord is a single hypostasis-as-physis. And in the Chalcedonian dyophysite language we affirm that the Single Lord unites two perfectly intact natures (Godhead and Humanity) which are irrefragably and mysteriously made One in the unificative energy of his own single person (hypostasis, prosopon – even physis – but only as the latter term was understood in the time of the earlier Fathers, as a synonym of hypostasis). Therefore it is by no means incompatible with Orthodoxy, rather necessary for a fuller confession of the faith, to assert the correctness of both the Cyrilline Miaphysite formula and the Chalcedonian definition: Mia physis and dyo-physeis. But here we have to understand the patristic semantics properly and keep the two key issues to the fore: first that physis in the Miaphysite confession means ‘person’; secondly that the Chalcedonian dyophysite statement does not mean two natures abiding after the henosis in an unchanging static parallelism, but rather as inseparably united in the divine force of the unity of Christ’s person.

So, is the long and large falling out between the Byzantine and Oriental Orthodox all about this simple misunderstanding of how ancient words can carry different meanings and shift in nuances over the years? Yes, partly. But something else is also at stake; and, for me at least, it still carries on today in similar, less radical, ways to the root causes of the ancient debate. (St. Cyril of Alexandria’s Miaphysite Christology and Chalcedonian Dyophysitism)

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