Select Page

A Report concerning the Dialogue of the Syrian and the Assyrian Churches

The Assyrian Church, otherwise known as the ‘Church of the East’, did not attend the Ecumenical Council of Ephesus in 431 A.D. Its members were later assumed into the Persian Empire.

The Assyrian Church believed the teachings of Nestorius, defended him and considered him a teacher and a saint, and still remembers him in its liturgies and celebrates his life in the feast of the Greek teachers. This Church also followed the teachings of Diodore of Tarsus and Theodore of Mopsuestia (in Iraq). It considered them like Nestorius, saints and Greek teachers (i.e. those who wrote their teachings in the Greek language). The liturgies of this Church also attack opponents of Nestorius, such as St. Cyril of Alexandria and St. Severus of Antioch, and consider them to have been evil men.

This Church rejects the decisions of the third Ecumenical Council at Ephesus in 431 A.D. as well as the decisions of the Council of Chalcedon (that is, the private council of Chalcedonians). It is important to note that the ‘Fifth Ecumenical Council’ (the second council to be convened in Constantinople, in 553 A.D.) anathematised the Three Chapters which the Council of Chalcedon had not previously anathematised;

1) the person and writings of Theodore of Mopsuestia,
2) the writings of Theodoret, Bishop of Cyrrhus against the twelve anathemas of St. Cyril, and
3) the letter of Ibas, Bishop of Edessa, to Maris, the Bishop of [Hardachir in] Persia.

St. Cyril of Alexandria wrote a letter to the Emperor Theodosius after the Council of Ephesus, following the reconciliation with John of Antioch, warning of the teachings of Diodore and Theodore. St. Cyril considered them responsible for the blasphemy of Nestorius, the Patriarch of Constantinople, who had been excommunicated by the Council and whose teachings had been anathematised, as Nestorius had been raised within the milieux of the teachings of Diodore and Theodore. Nestorius grew up in Antioch, before having been Patriarch of Constantinople: Theodore also grew up in Antioch before he became bishop for the city of Mopsuestia, in the region amidst the two rivers.

Mar Bawai Soro from the Assyrian Church said in the paper which he presented at Vienna in June 1994 that their Church liturgy, without exception, mentions Nestorius with Diodore of Tarsus and Theodore of Mopsuestia in its prayers. The report exhibits the respect given to the three teachers, and it also provides a list of Western fathers (in relation to the Church of the East) which again includes and emphasises the status of the same three theologians. Thus if we were to ask the question, ‘Does the Church of the East dignify Nestorius and continue to use his theological expressions ?’ the answer would be clear.

Strangely enough, the same Bishop pretended before us in Egypt in January 1995, that he was ready in the near future to abandon dignifying Nestorius and to expunge his name from the Assyrian liturgy. This statement was registered in the minutes of the sessions verbally and also in writing. Yet following his return, he was to deny strongly this statement at the meeting of members of the Syrian family of churches convened and supervised by the Pro Oriente Commission in February 1996. He even dared, in the paper which he presented in the final session of the dialogue, to require the Coptic Orthodox Church to lift the anathemas from Nestorius, claiming that the Council of Ephesus in 431 A.D. headed by St. Cyril, the Patriarch of Alexandria, had misjudged him.

The Assyrian Church asked to join the Middle-East Council of Churches during the Fourth General Assembly in 1986. The Coptic Church noted its objection by a letter addressed to the Co-Chairmen of the Council. The Coptic Church was joined in its objection by five Metropolitans of the Syrian Orthodox Church, each of whom were members of the Church delegation to the General Assembly, and who co-signed the letter. The reason underlying the objection was the refusal of the inclusion of a Nestorian Church in the membership of the Council. During this time, some members of the Coptic delegation met representatives of the Assyrian Church, in the presence of Metropolitan George Khodr of Lebanon from the Greek Orthodox Church of Antioch. When they were asked about the two dogmas of the Incarnation and Redemption, the Assyrians said, "God cannot be crucified" and, "God does not incarnate". The Coptic delegation understood by this that, in terms of their dogma, the Assyrians definitely remain Nestorians.

When the Council requested the Coptic Orthodox Church to share in the Council’s on-going dialogue with the theologians of this Church, the Coptic Church did not object as it regarded the opportunity as a chance to witness to the True Faith within the dialogue, and to explain the True Faith to others.

The preparation for, and organisation of, the dialogue continued until November 1994, when His Holiness Pope Shenouda III attended the Sixth General Assembly of the Council at which His Holiness was elected as one of the four presidents of the Council to represent the non-Chalcedonian Orthodox family. At the same time he agreed to invite a delegation from the Assyrian Church to attend a dialogue with the Coptic Orthodox Church which he himself would lead, together with representatives from the Syrian Orthodox Church and the Middle-East Council of Churches.

At the meeting which ensued, the Assyrian delegation presented a written response in the form of a suggested text about Christology, with particular regard to the nature of our Lord Jesus. They promised to abolish whatever was in disagreement with this text in their doctrinal sources and liturgies. By this they meant to delete the anathemas against such saints as Cyril of Alexandria and Severus of Antioch and also to delete the names of Nestorius, Diodore and Theodore from the list of saints of their Church, as well as the complete rejection of all Nestorian teachings. They did not mention in their speech the notion that Nestorius had been misjudged, as had been stated by them and the Catholic theologians in the meetings of the Pro Oriente sponsored Syriac Dialogue in Vienna in January 1994, February 1996 and July 1997.

On 11th November 1994 the Roman Catholic Pope had signed a joint agreement about Christology with regard to the nature of our Lord Jesus, with the Assyrian Patriarch Mar Dinkha IV. The Catholic Pro Oriente Commission organized an unofficial dialogue for all Churches of Syrian heritage, which comprised the Catholic Chaldean Church, the Catholic Maronite Church, the Syrian Catholic Church, the Syrian Orthodox Church, the Indian Syrian Orthodox Church, and the Assyrian Church of the East.

Two sessions were convened for this dialogue in Vienna, in June 1994 and February 1996. The Coptic Orthodox Church was invited as an Observer to the second meeting in February 1996. The proceedings, documents and papers of the first dialogue were published in English, then translated into Arabic.

Through the study of the material published about the first dialogue, and that which was presented during the second meeting, it was obvious that there is a Catholic-Assyrian tendency to acquit Nestorius, Diodore and Theodore of Mopsuestia, together with the clear accusation levelled at St. Cyril that his opposition to Nestorius was a matter of jealousy and was based upon wrong personal motives. The Catholics and Assyrians also appear to believe that the Council of Ephesus oppressed Nestorius; and they seem to suggest that this presumed oppression was emphasised by the decision of the second Council of Constantinople in 533 A.D. the ‘Fifth Ecumenical Council’) to anathematise the Three Chapters. Many Western theologians now try to acquit Nestorius, which makes possible the Western/Assyrian alliance to defend him, his teachings, and his teachers, Diodore and Theodore.

The representative of the Coptic Orthodox Church, during the meeting in Vienna in February 1996, presented a paper in English in order to answer the recent defences of Nestorius presented from Western scholars (the text of which is appended). With regard to the Middle-East Council of Churches, the Catholic Church has accepted the inclusion of the Assyrian Church within the Council’s Catholic Family and has requested its admission to Council membership by means of this provisionthis provision, but the Council refused that since it is against its constitution.

We see that the Assyrian dialogue requires a great deal of caution, as there is a clear scheme to acquit Nestorius and to ignore the condemnation of the Three Chapters. In this the Catholic Church plays a role no less than its part in the Council of Chalcedon, during which Pope Leo I (through his legates) absolved Theodoret, Bishop of Cyrrhus and Ibas, Bishop of Edessa, well known for their Nestorian tendencies. This is the reason why Pope Dioscorus excommunicated the Catholic Pope Leo I at this time, and had not done so in the Second Ephesian Council in 499 A.D. convened by Imperial decree.

There are attempts now done by the Coptic Orthodox Church to clarify the whole situation to the Roman Catholic Church in order to save the Christological agreement signed between them in Feb. 1988.

Posted by Fr. Moses Samaan

April 9, 2009