Monday, June 12, 2006

Anotioch and Alexandria

History is always instructive and Church history especially so. A lot of noise has been made in recent years about the fallacy of viewing early Christianity as a homogenous whole with one theology. Fingers get pointed at Irenaeus as the architect of orthodoxy, but even that is a gross oversimplification.

Those of us who haven't been raised to mistrust the Church have inherited a romantic notion of the early ecumenical councils from Nicea to Chalcedon where the bishops all came to agreement and the Church as one taught and practiced the orthodoxy they defined. Of course, it never happened that way.

The Council of Ephesus (431) is a particularly interesting case in point. We're told that the Council of Ephesus is the council at which the term "Theotokos" ("Mother of God") as a title for Mary received official Church blessing, and Nestorianism (the teaching that Christ existed as two persons -- a human person and a divine person) was condemned. But if you scratch just below the surface you discover that Ephesus was all about resolving a dispute between Antiochene Christianity and Alexandrian Christianity.

The council was precipitated by a feud between Cyril of Alexandria and Nestorius, bishop of Constantinople and former prodigy of Antioch. Nestorius asked the emperor to call a council to resolve the issue. The Alexandrian contingent got there first, quickly condemned Nestorius, upheld the Theotokos title and called it a day -- all this before the bishops from Antioch arrived. This is the official council of record. When the representatives from Antioch did arrive, they held their own council which condemned and excommunicated Cyril.

So far, it sounds a good bit like modern denominationalism. And I think it is. I contend that Antioch and Alexandria represented the major feature of the types of denominations that emerged from the Reformation -- namely, they each had their own theology which they held to be sacred. And in a manner worthy of the 16th century, they named anyone who disagreed with them as anathema.

But the really interesting thing about the Ephesus controversy is that they worked it out more or less to everyone's satisfaction. The leaders in Antioch agreed to dispense with the two persons doctrine while acknowledging two natures in Christ. The leaders in Alexandria agreed to dispense with their monophysite tendencies while acknowledging that Christ is one in person. The result was the formula of Chalcedon which though dressed up as dogma is really compromise. No doubt Alexandria and Antioch continued to practice and teach their distinctives, but the unity of the Church was also recognized and preserved.

Notably, many of the Alexandrian Christians felt Cyril had betrayed them by accepting this compromise and the result was one of the earliest schisms in the Church as the Coptic Orthodox Church became distinct from the rest of Eastern Orthodoxy (and still maintain that they are the ones preserving the purest apostolic tradition). I believe a similar thing happened on a smaller scale on the Nestorian side.

All of this provides a lesson that could be useful in our modern ecumenical situation. Conservatives in all branches of the Church maintain that we cannot budge on our traditional distinctives. But perhaps if we really look at what our fellow Christians in other denominations object to in our dogma we can discover that they have a point and we may even find a better way to affirm what it is our tradition is intending to preserve.

At the same time, we have the unfortunate reminder that there will be those who refuse to go along with even the best of compromises. Yet we can see that this is pretty much OK.


Patrik said...

It was a bit different on "the Nestorian side". The so called nestorians (a name that should be avoided), also known as the East Syrian Church, were great fans of Theodore of Mopsuestia, the exegete par exellence of the Antiochenes. This was their tradition. Also, by living way outside the Roman Empire, in Mesopotamia, the did not feel the Council of Ephesus concerned them - a fair point, since it was called by the Emperor of the Roman Empire. They were a pretty isolated bunch already.

Then there is the complicated question of language. The terms discussed, prosopon, hypostastasis, physis and so on all changed a bit in meaning when translated into Syriac. Essentially, the East Syrians meant something different when they said that Christ was two persons (in on hypostasis) then the greeks understood.

Most scholars today agree that the East Syrians never were "nestorians" in the "western" sense of the word, although their Christology did distinguish sharply between the divine and the human, in all parts of theology, not only the Christology. And it was only in the early seventh cenury that the East Syrians started to read Nestorius, and not that much even then. It was Theodore, "the Interpreter" that was the big name.

Andy said...

Thanks for the extra details, Patrik.

The beauty of digging into the history of heresy is that we so often find out thing like Nestorius wasn't Nestorian and Pelagius wasn't Pelagian. Or so the scholars tell us.

From the pieces I've read from Theodore (mostly quotations in Pelikan's "Emergence of the Catholic Tradition"), he sounds remarkably like a modern theologian.

Tom in Ontario said...

In the liberal vs. conservative disagreements, just where do you propose that each side compromise for the sake of unity?

Andy said...

I don't know if any compromises should be made for the sake of unity. The big thing I'd like to promote is compromise for the sake of better theology. Theology has a tendency to freeze. Compromise is a force working against that. If we're willing to hear and seriously consider why our opponents think we're heretics, we can make some progress.

My recent posts on free will were kind of an exercise in this sort of approach. How can Lutheran theology be made better by openness to so-called "synergistic" theologies?

Tom in Ontario said...

I don't know if I'm willing to compromise Lutheran theology. I think we've already got it right (how's that for arrogant?)

I think where we've got to grow and change is in our practice. We don't evangelize very well, for example, and we've got Evangelical in our name. I also think of the peacemakers who go to the middle east and stand themselves between warring factions or countries. The ones I hear about tend to be Mennonites. We're the ones who've got our theology right, so why aren't we the ones over there carrying our crosses into harm's way for the sake of peace? We've got the theology right but we've compromised too much on our practice.

"It is also taught among us that such faith should produce good fruits and good works and that we must do all such good works as God has commanded, but we should do them for God's sake and not place our trust in them as if thereby to merit favor before God."

Andy said...

I think we've already got it right (how's that for arrogant?)

It's very Lutheran. :-)

I wonder if better theology vis a vis personal accountability wouldn't lead to better practice. I recently read the following as the Mennonite evaluation of "the difference between the apostolic church and the compromised state church":

"First and fundamental...was the conception of the essence of Christianity as discipleship."

We might hear that from Bonhoeffer, but our theology tends to make discipleship secondary.

Ross said...

I just appreciate the fact that denominational splits existed before denominations even existed. People have this notion that the ancient church got along much better than we do today. In the same way, people believe politicians were less divisive than they are today.

I think that we could make a case in both instances that we have actually before more cordial to each other. However, this is very much a surface "Minnesota Nice" thing. We are probably further away from understanding each other than we have ever been. We just have learned how to treat people with the minimum amount of etiquette and the maximum amount of condescention.

I would love to see an academic paper on the fights of the early church.

Andy said...

It's true. Things aren't what they used to be, and they never were.