How heretical are we willing to become?

In the midst of the worst pandemic in over a hundred years, much of the Orthodox world is addicted to magical thinking. There is unyielding resistance to changing the mode of distributing Communion. After all, it is the Body and Blood of Christ, isn’t it? Of course it is the Body and Blood of Christ. But it is also bread and wine, and does not cease to be bread and wine as the mere taste in the mouth easily confirms to anyone who is not in some mystical dreamland when receiving communion. The fundamentalist traditionalists are in control of the Orthodox Church. And since they are usually first to quote theological jargon and church canons, how about I throw a little theology at them, and an ecumenical council to boot?

The Council of Chalcedon issued its Definition in the year 451 in response to the heresy of monophysitism and asserted the full humanity and divinity of Christ. Four negatives famously asserted that the humanity and divinity in Jesus Christ were without confusion, without change, indivisible, and inseparable – ἐν δύο φύσεσιν ἀσυγχύτως, ἀτρέπτως, ἀδιαιρέτως, ἀχωρίστως. Here is the full text of the doctrinal Definition (Creed) of Chalcedon. It is a brilliant statement of Orthodox theology at its best and most definitive:

We, then, following the holy Fathers, all with one consent, teach people to confess one and the same Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, the same perfect in Godhead and also perfect in manhood; truly God and truly man, of a reasonable [rational] soul and body; consubstantial [co-essential] with the Father according to the Godhead, and consubstantial with us according to the Manhood; in all things like unto us, without sin; begotten before all ages of the Father according to the Godhead, and in these latter days, for us and for our salvation, born of the Virgin Mary, the Mother of God, according to the Manhood; one and the same Christ, Son, Lord, only begotten, to be acknowledged in two natures, inconfusedly, unchangeably, indivisibly, inseparably; (ἐν δύο φύσεσιν ἀσυγχύτως, ἀτρέπτως, ἀδιαιρέτως, ἀχωρίστως – in duabus naturis inconfuse, immutabiliter, indivise, inseparabiliter) the distinction of natures being by no means taken away by the union, but rather the property of each nature being preserved, and concurring in one Person (prosopon) and one Subsistence (hypostasis), not parted or divided into two persons, but one and the same Son, and only begotten God (μονογενῆ Θεόν), the Word, the Lord Jesus Christ; as the prophets from the beginning [have declared] concerning Him, and the Lord Jesus Christ Himself has taught us, and the Creed of the holy Fathers has handed down to us.

Consider what the Council of Chalcedon states:

  • Jesus Christ is fully divine and fully human.
  • He was fully human in everything, as we are, except sin. This of course is in line with the clear teaching of the Epistle to the Hebrews 2:14-18 and 4:14-16. The high priesthood of Jesus Christ is an amazing and central teaching of the Epistle to the Hebrews (throughout chapters 2-9 of that New Testament epistle!) and a brilliant exploration of the enduring humanity of our Lord. But it is mostly ignored in the tradition of the Orthodox Church – except when it serves as iconic backdrop to the Bishop’s throne in churches!

Having affirmed the perfect humanity and perfect divinity, the Definition went on to more closely define how the humanity and divinity co-existed in the Person of Jesus Christ. This is where it got technical and broke new ground. The famous four negatives are exactly what contemporary Orthodox discussions about the Eucharist during the pandemic are ignoring: ἀσυγχύτως, ἀτρέπτως, ἀδιαιρέτως, ἀχωρίστως. The two natures in Christ were not divided (ἀδιαιρέτως) or separated (ἀχωρίστως). Jesus was not divine one moment and human the next. The two natures were undivided and inseparable. Our stalwart “Orthodox” will proclaim in their customary assertiveness: There you have it. If the divinity and humanity in Christ are not divided or separated, doesn’t that mean that in the Eucharist as well, the bread and wine cannot be separated from the divine nature of the Body and Blood?

Yes, but those two Greek words are only half the story. They are preceded by two other negatives. The two natures are indeed inseparable and undivided, but they are so in a way that they are not confused (ἀσυγχύτως) and they are unchanged (ἀτρέπτως). So the humanity does not change into the divinity, or vice versa. Neither do the two natures become mingled into one nature, “the distinction of natures being by no means taken away by the union, but rather the property of each nature being preserved, and concurring in one Person (prosopon) and one Subsistence (hypostasis).” The terms prosopon and hypostasis are technical terms referring to the reality of the person we know as Jesus Christ. The key to the whole matter is that the two natures preserve their properties and uniqueness in the union that was brought about in the Person of Jesus Christ. This focus on the Person of Jesus Christ was the major theological contribution of St. Cyril of Alexandria, whose theology was at the heart of the Third Ecumenical Council in Ephesus (431 AD) and the Fourth Ecumenical Council in Chalcedon (451 AD).

If the Council of Chalcedon went so far into precise language to affirm the full humanity of Jesus Christ – unmingled, unconfused with his divinity – can we not say the same thing about the Eucharist? What the Council of Chalcedon said about the Person of Jesus Christ has to be true about the presence of Christ in the mystery of the Eucharist. It is the Body and Blood of Christ we receive in the Eucharist, but the bread and wine preserve their material identity and all their properties in the change that takes place during the Liturgy. If we Orthodox are going to insist that we are the Church of the Councils, and if we’re going to use the decisions of the Councils as our guide, shouldn’t we take the Council of Chalcedon seriously and stop retreating into magical thinking that is putting lives in danger of infection and death?

The Definition of the Council of Chalcedon is one of the crucial and central statements of Orthodox theology. It is on an equal footing as the Nicene Creed, and it is a creed in its own right, as it expands on the Nicene statement “and he became man.” The Church has always had a difficult time with the humanity of Christ. It took only two ecumenical councils (in 325 and 381) to articulate the divinity of Christ and the Trinitarian dogma. But it took five ecumenical councils (from Ephesus in 431 to Nicaea in 787) and 350 years to come to an understanding of Christ’s humanity. More than twelve centuries later we still struggle with the humanity of Christ. In Orthodox Liturgy and hymnography Jesus Christ is, with extremely few exceptions, almost invariably referred to and prayed to as “Christ our God.” The humanity of Jesus Christ is completely lost. And this is the root of the present controversy around the reception of the Eucharist in the midst of a pandemic. This is dangerously close to the heresy of monophysitism; or maybe it is the heresy of monophysitism.

The denial of the empirical, physical properties of the Eucharist is in line with the denial of the humanity of Christ. How far are we willing to go into heretical thinking in order to defend magical thinking and satisfy the wild rantings of the conservative and traditionalist factions of the Orthodox Church? We are rapidly driving the Church into Dark Ages of our own, modern making. The defenders of ‘tradition’ also assert that the chalice and the spoon are sanctified by contact with the Eucharist! But the less I say about that the better. Needless to say, it goes beyond magical thinking and takes us into the area of idolatry – and laughably so.

2 Replies to “How heretical are we willing to become?”

  1. This is a very challenging topic to consider, but I look at this from a different perspective.

    Consider the woman with the issue of blood: we read in Mathew 9 and Mark 5 that she touched the “fringe of His cloak” (Mathew 9:20) thinking “If I just touch His garments, I will get well” (Mark 5:28). Surely communion is a similar act of faith.

    The reality is that this discussion is mostly not about doctrine and heresy, even if it takes a doctrinal bent. In reality this is about faith.

    If we believe that God is not involved in the intricate details of our lives, , then it would be hard not to try and be extra vigilant in the midst of an outbreak. In this case I struggle to understand the need to be in church at all. An online service is just as good, and one can come to suitable alternatives for all the practices.

    If, on the other hand, we believe in the God who holds the exact timing of our life and death, and is intimately involved in the details of the lives of individuals, then disease and death are just rites of passage when they happen, and God can allow or stop them at will.

    I once read of a person engaging in a theological argument about the nature of God with a certain christian. I don’t remember exactly the nature of the argument, but the response of the christian stayed with me. The christian listened to the whole argument and then asked: “Before we discuss the nature of God, can you explain the nature of man? ”

    Most of us deal with these issues from the perspectives we come from, and are totally unaware of the big picture, because we are limited beings. If we are honest, we do not intellectually understand how we fit into the cosmological plan of God, and an act of faith in the God of creation is both affirming and healing. Otherwise, life has little meaning and we are just passing time waiting for Godot.

  2. Thank you for the example of the woman with the issue of blood. A very beautiful example of faith. Unfortunately, the issue I have raised is not mainly about faith. It is, contrary to your assertion, a matter of doctrine. If faith is divorced from doctrine – and Chalcedon is as hard-core doctrine as it comes – then we become little more than a pentecostal church that practices faith healing, for example. If faith is divorced from doctrine, it easily becomes magical thinking and even idolatry. The Orthodox Church claims to be the church of doctrine.

    Making it all about faith divides the church into those who have strong faith and those who are weak in their faith. And already this is happening in many parishes. To say as you do that “disease and death are just rites of passage when they happen, and God can allow or stop them at will” is something that I can accept as a theological assertion. But to assert it in this context opens the door to spiritual escapism and deception. If someone dies from receiving Communion in the ‘traditional’ manner during this pandemic, does it then mean that it was God’s will for that person to die at that time and in that manner? Are we to reject medicine and science as many fundamentalist Christian sects do? As you say, we are limited beings and we don’t see the big picture. We can’t presume to say that someone dies because it was God’s will, when it could have been the result of human decision. The manner of Communion is a purely human tradition. To turn it into the dividing line between strong and weak faith is not something I, as a limited being, want to do.

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