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Dialogue with the Assyrian Church of the East and its effect on the Dialogue with the Roman Catholic

A paper presented in the name of His Eminence Metropolitan Bishoy at the Orientale Lumen conference in Melbourne, Australia, July 9th – 12th 2000.

The Coptic Orthodox Church participated in the theological dialogue with the Assyrian Church of the East decided by the Fourth general assembly of the Middle East Council of Churches (MECC) in Cyprus 1986.

The long process of this dialogue continued until the Sixth (6th) General Assembly of the Council in November 1994, when His Holiness Pope Shenouda III agreed to invite a delegation from the Assyrian Church of the East to attend a theological dialogue with the Coptic Orthodox Church in which he himself would lead the Coptic members, and with representatives from the Syrian Orthodox Church of Antioch and the MECC.

The meeting was held in Saint Bishoy Monastery, Egypt. in January 1995, with Metropolitans Mar Narsai de Baz and Mar Bawai Soro delegated by Patriarch Mar Dinkha IV to represent the Assyrian Church of the East, Metropolitan Mar Theophilis George Saliba representing the Syrian Orthodox Church of Antioch and Fr. (now Metropolitan) Paul Sayah representing the MEEC. A proposed Christological common declaration was prepared in which the following statement was of major importance:

‘Both sides consider this declaration a basic step on the way towards the re-establishment of the full ecclesiastical communion between their Churches which existed among the Apostles and their Churches in the early centuries of Christianity. They can indeed, from now on, proclaim together before the world their common faith in the ineffable mystery of Christ. the incarnate Word of God. Furthermore, they pledge to endeavor to remove from their liturgical and official sources any contradiction to this agreement.’

The common intention was to consider this proposed common declaration as a first step to cancel step by step the teachings and the veneration of Nestorius together with Theodore of Mopsuestia and Diodore of Tarsus from their sources, liturgies and theological books.

Afterwards the Coptic Orthodox Church was struck by the fact that the promises given to her in that meeting were inverted to the opposite during the second consultation of the Syriac Dialogue organized by Pro Oriente and held February 1996 in Vienna, where the Coptic Orthodox Church was attending as an observer.

Mar Bawat Soro who is a distinct theologian of the Assynan Church of the East presented a paper in this meeting with the title ‘Does Ephesus Unite or Divide – A Re-evaluation of the Council of Ephesus – an Assyrian Church of the East Perspective’. From this paper we quote the following:

We would only ask that a like effort be made to understand Nestorius’ equally orthodox concern to promote the use of language expressing Christ‘s complete and uncompromised human and divine natures. As we do not ask anyone to revile the memory of Cyril,we would respectfully ask not to be required to abandon our long held admiration of and appreciation for Nestorius."

He also said:
"One could only pray and hope that the oriental Orthodox Brethren from all ecclesial traditions would, in the near future, be able to take similar steps like those of the Assyrian Church and rise above the historical misunderstanding, misjudgment, or whatever difficulty they still may have with Nestortius’ Christology which, I believe, today has been rediscovere, re-evaluated, understood, and accepted, by modern scholarly research, as an orthodox teaching."

Mar Bawai Soro made a severe attack on the Ecumenical Council of Ephesus saying:
"A tumultuous council took place, with Cyril acting as both prosecutor and judge of Nestorius. The trial of Nertorius at Ephesus in which he was condemned has always been viewed by the Church of the East as unfair and illegal. It should be noted that others, outside the Church of the East and with impeccable credentials as orthodox scholars, have also agreed with that judgment, attributing the chaotic and embittered atmosphere at Ephesus to personal animus and political ambition on the part of Cyril."

At the same time Most Rev. Dr. Mar Aprem the Metropolitan of Trichur of the Assyrian Church of the East in India presented a paper titled ‘Summary of the Christological debate in the 5 Vienna Consultations between theologians of the Oriental Orthodox and Roman Catholic Churches in the light of its applicability to the dialogue with the Assyrian Church of the East’ in which he stated:

"How much do Assyrians care for Nestorius? How much do they ‘Hate’ Cyril of Alexandria. Although the Assyrtans state that Nestorius is not their founder and therefore refuse to be called Nestorians the general trend is that Nestorius, though Greek. is very much their father. The Assyrian.s never cared to understand the teachings of Cyril ofAlexandria.

Since then, it became clear to the Coptic Orthodox Church that it will be impossible to come to an agreement with the Assyrian Church of the East on Christology so long that they shall continue to defend Nestorius and his teachings which were rejected by the third Ecumenical Council at Ephesus and are still rejected by the Coptic Orthodox Church.

In order to explain the reason for that rejection we may quote from the paper of Mar Aprem with the title ‘Was Nestorius a Nestorian’ which he presented in the 59th Ecumenical Symposium of Pro Oriente, Vienna, 18th June 1990 and is published as an Annex in the book of the first Syriac Consultation organised by Pro Oriente in Vienna June 1994 the following:

"Attention should be drawn to the fact that Nestorius in his biblical exegesis followed the literalistic, anti-allegorical method employed by Theodoros of Mopsuestia and favoured in Antiochene circles. Richard Morris states that it was Theodoros who propounded the undoubted original of the Nestorian Christology.

Logos took flesh, He took the form of a servant. He was a sinless man, though the possibility of sin was open to him, as he was a perfect man, being a sinless man, he was able to restore mankind to the image of God. Loofs writes:

‘The main thing is that the logos of a servant brought into existence a sinless man, hence the stress is laid on the moral and religious development of Jesus’1

Nestorius says that the incarnation took place through an intelligent and rational soul. The soul, therefore, is the relation between Logos and man. This is a voluntary union. Here we find a union of free will. The relation becomes so close that one cannot be separated from the other. Or, in the terminology of Paul, Nestorius says that the ‘form of God’ shows itself in the ‘form of a servant’ in acting in the ‘form of God’.2

He also wrote:3

"It must be stated, that ‘image of God’ is not a very important doctrine to Nestorius. His concern is Christological. Here, he differs from Irenaeus and the majority of the Church Fathers. In Bazar of Heraclides, he never discusses the ‘image of God’ in itself. His interest is not man‘s creation in the image of God, but the image of God as it was found in Christ.

The image of god is both the perfect revelation of god as well as perfection of the human nature. Image of God to Nestorius includes both the human and the divine prosopa. In his exegesis of the Philippian hymn Nestorius equates the image of God with the prosopon of union. When Nestorius used Gen. 1,26-7 to explain Phil 2 the resulting exegesis expounds prosopic union. Rowan states:

Therefore the image of God is the perfect expression of God to men. The image of God, understood in this sense, can be thought of as the divine prosopon. God dwells in Christ and perfectly reveals himself to men through him. Yet the two prosopa are really one image of God.4

The same author rightly thinks that Nestorius’ use of the image of God solves, in a fairly coherent way the fundamental problems of the Antiochene Christology.5

It is clear to the Coptic Orthodox Church that even modern scholars cannot deny that Nestorius taught that two persons were united externally according to will and image in Christ and not that the person of the Logos himself became man uniting the human nature which he assumed in the incarnation to his divine nature in his simple person, the thing which the Orthodox call hypostatic union against the prosopic union of Nestorius.

Other quotations from the new discoveries of the writings of Nestorius regarding the prosopic union are as follows:

"Two are the prosopa, the prosopon of he who has clothed and the prosopon of he who is clothed".6

"We must not forget that the two natures involve with him two distinct hypostasis and two persons (prosopons) united together by simple loan and exchange".7

The question now in front of the Coptic Orthodox Church regarding the Christological agreement signed by Pope John Paul II and Patriarch Mar Dinkha in November 1994, is how this agreement may affect the Christological agreement signed between Rome and Alexandria in February, 1983 in which it is stated that we anathematize both the teachings of Nestorius and Eutychus.

In order to discover some of the difficulty facing the Coptic Orthodox Church one may refer to the paper presented by the theologians of the Assyrian Church of the East Mar Bawai Soro and M. J. Birnie in Vienna, June 1994 during the first consultation of the Syriac dialogue organised by Pro Oriente. We quote:

"The liturgies of the Church invariably name Nestorius, with Diodore of Tarsus and Theodore of Mopsuestia, in their litanies. The calendar features a ‘Memorial of the Greek Doctors’, a list of ‘western’ fathers which includes – and emphasizes – the same three theologians. If the question is ‘Does the Church of the East venerate Nestorius and continue to employ his theological vocabulary?’ the answer is obvious."8

"Under the influence of its patron, a zealous defender of the Antiochene positions and of his choice to head the school, Narsai, the institution flourished and gained respect as a serious center of learning. The Antiochene partisans at Nisibis vigorously promoted their Christological position, using the terminology familiar to them, that is, with the very terminology anathematized by the Ephesene synod and by the partisans of Cyril. Among them Nestorius was venerated as a staunch defender of Antiochene orthodoxy and a martyr to the pride and arrogance of Cyril of Alexandria. The reluctance of bishops of the Church of the East to take a definitive posture, whether positive or negative, relative to Nestorius gave these partisans the opportunity and freedom to further their cause in his defense."9

For the Coptic Orthodox Church Saint Cyril of Alexandria is and will remain a hero of faith and true defender of orthodoxy and we cannot accept to sign an agreement with a church who venerates Nestorius as ‘a staunch defender of Antiochene orthodoxy and a martyr to the pride and arrogance of Cyril of Alexandria.’ That is a great hindrance in our dialogue with the Assyrian Church of the East which is reflected in our relations with the Church of Rome with a threat towards the Christological agreement signed between Rome and Alexandria in February 1998.

For that reason we shall exert our efforts to clear away any difficulties which may affect the theological dialogue between the Roman Catholic Church and the Coptic Orthodox Church.

1. Loofs, Nestorius. op. cit. p83

2. Syriac Dialogue, first non-official consultation on dialogue within the Syriac Tradition. Pro Oriente – Vienna June 1994, p221-222

3. Ibid. p222, 223

4. Rowan Greer: ‘The Image of God and the Prosopic Union in Nestorius’ Bazaar of Heraclides in Lux in Lumine, Essays to honour W. Norman Pittenger, edited by R.A. Morris jr. New York 1996, p50.

5. Ibid. p60.

6. LH 193 Bazaar of Heraclides, quoted by Bernard Duapy, OP, ‘The Christology of Nestorius’ Syriac Dialogue, Pro Oriente, op. cit. p113.

7. R. Nau, Le Livre d’Heraclide de Damas (=LH), Paris 1910; p.xxviii.

8. Mar Bawai Soro/M.J. Birnie ‘Is the Theology of the Church of the East Nestorian?’ – Syriac Dialogue, first non-official consultation on dialogue within the Syriac Tradition, Pro Oriente – Vienna June
1994, p116.

9. Ibid p120-121.

Posted by Fr. Moses Samaan

April 9, 2009