207. “What we have here is a failure to communicate”: The Fourth Ecumenical Council

The quote above is from a 1967 Paul Newman movie, “Cool Hand Luke”,  about a Florida prison chain gang. You younger people probably remember neither 1967 nor Paul Newman nor chain gangs. (Indeed a cool movie. Look it up.)

I think the line is still fairly common, because it applies to so many situations. For example, one very dear to my heart: marriage. “You said that. I heard you.” “I said no such thing.” “Yes, you did!” “I didn’t!” Every married couple have been through this dialog. I know. As a pastor, I did some marriage counseling (within my limited capabilities). As a husband, I even needed a little myself. Misunderstandings resulting from failures to communicate can sometimes have very sad results.

Which brings us to the Church in the Fifth Century.

The Fourth Ecumenical Council and its sad results

On the Sunday on or after July 13, the Holy Orthodox Church celebrates the Fathers of the Fourth Ecumenical Council. * It met in Chalcedon, across from Constantinople in October in the year 451. (Does anyone here know why we celebrate it in July?)  Right: Is this really them? I doubt it.

  • This is Greek/Antiochian practice. The Slavic tradition commemorares the first six Ecumenical Councils at this time.

Later we’ll say a little about the big theological issue. (Preview: It was “Christological”.)

But first let’s look at how it all turned out. With a separation. The Holy Orthodox Church suffered its first and only real schism. Most Orthodox in Egypt, Ethiopia, Armenia, and many in Palestine and Syria, as well as in India, rejected the Council. Here in the West they are popularly called “Oriental Orthodox” while those of us who accepted the Fourth Council are popularly called “Eastern Orthodox”. * Each group anathematized the other, and withdrew from Eucharistic Communion with the other. This schism has continued to the present time –  almost sixteen centuries.

  • These titles make no sense, since “Oriental” and “Eastern” mean the same thing! The explanation (I think): We “Eastern” Orthodox were (for the most part) geographically “east” in relation to Rome and the western world. But the “Oriental Orthodox” were (for the most part) geographically farther east than us most of us Eastern Orthodox. (I say “were” because people from both groups are now intermingled in the Western world. However, in the Middle East, Eastern Orthodox are instead called “Greek Orthodox”, even though the people are not Greek, and Eastern Orthodox formally call the Oriental Orthodox “Monophysites”, even though they say they’re not, and I’m really sorry I got into this…

Ever since the Fourth Century, we and the Oriental Orthodox have disagreed about who are the true Orthodox. We say we are. They just as adamantly insist that they are.

Today the Oriental Orthodox consist of the Coptic Orthodox of Egypt, the Ethiopian Orthodox, the Armenian Orthodox, Syriac Orthodox, the Malankara Church of India, and the  Eritrean Orthodox Church – maybe sixty million people in total. This compares to perhaps 250 million of us Eastern Orthodox worldwide, of whom we say six million are in the U.S. but I doubt it.

Moves towards Theological Reconciliation

In recent years there has been serious dialog between Eastern and Oriental Orthodox scholars. Theological committees from both groups met regularly during the Twentieth Century. Below So, looking back at the schism from fifteen centuries later, what was their conclusion?

This is from their Second Agreed Statement of 1990:

“We have now clearly understood that both families have always loyally maintained the same authentic Orthodox Christological faith, and the unbroken continuity of the apostolic tradition, though they have used Christological terms in different ways.” 

“The anathemas and condemnations of the past which now divide us should be lifted by the Churches in order that the last obstacle to the full unity and communion of our two families can be removed by the grace and power of God. Both families agree that the lifting of anathemas and condemnations will be consummated on the basis that the Councils and Fathers previously anathematized or condemned are not heretical.”

If I read this right (trying to translate from theologlcal-dialogese into English), the theologians are saying that apparently it was all a big mistake!

“What we had here was a failure to communicate.”

The Separation and what caused it 

How ever could such a dreadful thing have happened? I won’t take you through the theological intricacies. (In mid-summer? No way.) But let’s look at the situation itself, with a little of the theology included.

Let’s use the marriage analogy again. Consider what it would be like if a husband and wife had not only the ordinary problems of trying to communicate with each other, but also had different native languages? and came from different cultures with different ways of understanding things? As simple as this: You want miscommunication? In Bulgaria and Greece (and I assume otherwhere east), try this:

That was the situation in the Fifth Century. The Council was conducted in imperial Greek, of course. But there were also Christians who didn’t think and speak like Greeks.

The theological problem was Christology, the doctrine of Christ.  Not “who is Jesus Christ?” Everybody knew that without quite being able to express it. The Gospels were clear that He was a Man. He had a Body, he was born, he ate, he drank, He was tempted like us, He suffered, He died. Yet He said and did things that only the One eternal, all-powerful God could do. But He was an “integrated” personality. He didn’t “speak God out of one side,  Man from the other.

The issue at the Councils was how to express it. There were no ready-made words, for in the Incarnation something totally new and unique had happened. How to describe this seeming “impossibility”: God become a Man? The infinite God present in a finite Human Being. The eternal God present in time. The impassible God suffering on a Cross. Trying to get this into words was, of course, impossible. No earthly words can begin to encompass our infinite God, or even fully define the mystery of being human.

But something had to be said. All sorts of inadequate misleading dangerous ways of talking about Christ were arising, and they needed to be countered. As someone said, the Fathers needed to “put a fence around the Mystery”. So at the Council they did their best, using the Greek language and thought forms of the Empire.

Then came the next impossible task: trying to explain the exact meaning of the Greek to Syrians, Egyptians, Armenians, Ethiopians, with their different languages and cultures. For as we know words never translate precisely from one language to another.

I’m not going to go any deeper here into the theological debate at the Council and how, according to the story, it was all settled.  Theologians who know what they’re talking about can sum up these things simply, but I’m no theologian. So I’ll just tell you how that turned out.

By the end of the Council, the Eastern Orthodox thought the Oriental Orthodox were saying that Christ is no longer a Man, that “his humanity has been completely swallowed up in His divinity”. This heresy is called Monophysitism, “one-nature-ism”. On the other hand, the Oriental Orthodox thought that we Eastern Orthodox were saying that in Jesus Christ God and Man were not united in one Person but rather remained separated. This heresy is called “Nestorianism”, after Archbishop Nestorius of Constantinople who taught it.

These beliefs were heretical because they deny our salvation. Christ came not to destroy and swallow up our human nature but to perfect it, to “deify” it. Christ came to unite heaven and earth, to unite us with God, not to leave us separated.

However, both sides deny fervently that they hold these heresies! “What we had here was a failure to communicate.”

Then to make it worse, politics and stubbornnes reared their ugly heads… and so here are we sixteen centuries later, still separated.

Moving towards Reconciliation

For many centuries there was great resentment, both theological and popular, on each side. Today that seems to have nearly faded away. We need to take advantage of this situation while we have it. First we need to get know each other better. Why do most of us Easterns know so little about the Orientals?

To begin, did you know that Armenia and Ethiopia were the first Christian kingdoms? before the Roman Empire.

Next, let’s look at some of the Oriental Liturgies. Don’t spend too much time here now or you’ll likely never get to the end of this article! So please just get the “feel” now. (I think their Liturgies are like ours, only more so.) Then come back and watch the rest. This is fascinating.


Coptic. Their music is often accompanied by hand cymbals. Why can’t we do that?


Ethiopian.  I want one of those liturgical umbrellas!


Armenian with some contemporary music settings.


Syriac. The Syriac language derives from the Aramaic which our Lord Jesus spoke.


People from both groups are now welcomed into each others’ churches, especially if none of their own is nearby or accessible. (We have had both Syriac and Coptic members at Saint Nicholas, Cedarburg. Another Eastern Orthodox parish in Milwaukee has had many Ethiopian members.) People from both churches sometimes serve as Baptismal sponsors in the others.

I was honored one time to be invited to our Milwaukee Coptic Orthodox church when their Patriarch came to visit. Their style of greeting the bishop is less formal than ours, shall we say? Instead of waiting in church, when he arrived people en masse rushed out to his limousine to greet him, the women with many zaghroutas. Below


There are today about 10 million Coptic Orthodox, about 400,000 in America with about 200 parishes here. Most of their people here are well educated professionals. They suffer frequent persecution in Egypt. Do you know, by the way, that the Coptic Orthodox have been leaders in modern audio-visual teaching material. They were at it before we Eastern Orthodox got there.

Both the Ethiopian and Eritrean Orthodox churches comprise about half their countries’ populations, but both also experience persecution. Fifteen Ethiopian churches have been burnt to the ground in the past two years. There are about 35 million Ethiopian Orthodox today, the largest of the Oriental Churches.

Before I was Orthodox I watched a BBC travelog about Ethiopia. In a village there was a scene of men dressed very ornately walking under equally colorful umbrellas, then doing something to a river. The people followed behind, jumping and dancing about, and then many jumped into the water. It was called Timqat or Timkat. The British narrator seemed to think it was a pagan rite of some sort. So did I. But now that I’m Orthodox I know better, and so do you. Maybe we Westerners could learn from them how to loosen up a bit.

Watch for the Holy Water Hose right after 1:55!


In the Middle East, Christians of all sorts tend to “hang together” because they are a small minority now. Relations today are especially close in Syria, for reasons you can understand. Bishops and delegations of both groups meet.

In 2012, Metropolitan Boulos Yazigi, the Greek (Eastern/Antiochian)  Archbishop of Aleppo, and Metropolitan Yohanna Ibrahim, the Syriac Archbishop of Aleppo, were traveling together when they were kidnapped by terrorists. They have not been heard of since. (In our Antiochian Patriarchate we still pray for them at every service.) Patriarchs from both churches meet for common prayer services for the missing hierarchs.

Did you know that there are, so help me, five Patriarchs of Antioch of various flavors: Greek (Eastern) Orthodox) , Syriac (Oriental) Orthodox, Melkite, Maronite and Syriac Catholic. Enemies? No. Here they all are pictured together.

What will it take to end this schism?

Unfortunately, the Eastern/Oriental separation continues. Clergy are not yet allowed to celebrate services together.

We need to get past this, for we need each other:

The Christians of the Middle East, whether Eastern or Oriental, are under siege. They need our support.

2 We Eastern Orthodox of the West need to learn from them. I remind Protestant and Roman Catholic folks that Jesus was not born in America, nor into Western culture. Eastern Orthodox naturally tend to think and speak in Greek categories, and with good reason. But surprise! nor was Jesus a Greek! He was Middle Eastern. He was Jewish. He was Semitic. To grasp Him and His teachings in their context, we also need to look a little farther east.

As we well know, the Holy Orthodox Church moves  s  l  o  w  l  y.  But must we wait another sixteen centuries before we get this healed? Please, Lord, no.

Some years back a man from Saint Nicholas, Cedarburg, Attorney Wilfred deJunco, wrote his Master’s thesis on this subject. Here was his conclusion:

“After spending over 40 years in dialogue, and composing various Agreed Statements in an effort to find language acceptable and understandable to both sides, the disagreement over the understanding of the nature of Jesus Christ, which started at the Council of Chalcedon in 451, continues between Eastern Orthodox and Oriental Orthodox theologians. The apparent impossibility of reaching a common understanding becomes evident when one sees that the terms that are used, and have been fought over, have acquired different and contrary meanings for each church after 1500 years of divergent history and traditions.

” It seems that a new dialogue, one which seeks to move beyond the current stalemate and to arrive at a common expression of the faith, will be required. That dialogue would need to be based in an atmosphere of mutual humility, and with an apophatic mindset based on the realization that the Incarnation, the hypostatic union of the divine and human natures in Jesus Christ, is beyond human understanding and explanation, and after all discussion ends, remains a mystery.”
This shouldn’t be so hard. No matter what words we’re using, it seems that today both Eastern Orthodox and Oriental Orthodox believe the same things about Jesus Christ. We both recite the same Creed. And in almost every way, we have much more in common with each other, than either of us have with Roman Catholics and Protestants of the West.

Might God make an “end run” around everybody and reunite us in a way we cannot foresee?

Another possibility: Our late Antiochian Metropolitan Philip (blessed be his memory) once said the problem will be solved like this: One day in the Middle East an Oriental Orthodox bishop and and an Eastern Orthodox bishop will just get together and celebrate a Divine Liturgy together – and let the rest of the Orthodox Church figure out how to deal with it!

Pray, brothers and sisters. Pray.

Next Week: A Twentieth Century Martyr –  Mother Maria of Paris

Week after next: Saint Panteleimon

12 thoughts on “207. “What we have here is a failure to communicate”: The Fourth Ecumenical Council

  1. I would really be careful with this, there are serious theological differences between Orthodoxy and the Orientals, I mean just see this debate between two Orthodox and two Orientals to see all of the things we disagree about theologically and historically that must be resolved before reunion: https://youtu.be/4n-myvYQO8M

    Ultimately the problem is that we have bound ourselves to infallibility, and we both can’t be right on the question of whether Christ exists as one Person in two natures or not.

    1. Thanks for your comment. I have had no personal experience with this and was only going by the statements of the joint theological commissions. I know these can be sometimes be overly optimistic, since they are usually composed of people who greatly desire unity. Also our late Metropolitan Philip was of the same opinion. That’s all I know for myself. Yes, indeed: We tend to think our theological dogmas are infallible statements of truth, when they only point to God who alone is infallible.

  2. The disputants at the council of Chalcedon were speaking the same language: i.e. Greek and were not under the impression that they misunderstood one another. Neither were all the saints who understood a real disagreement on this issue. What non-Chalcedonians want is for language that is confusing and self contradictory to be redefined and accepted as expression of Orthodoxy. It indicates a lack of the kind of sacrificial love that would be required to effect the reunion of the Non-Chalcedonians with the Orthodox. The invitation to the Orthodoxy (not in name only) has been the same to all peoples from the beginning who heeded the call, often at extreme personal cost: “Listen, O daughter, consider and incline your ear; forget your own people also, and your father’s house; So the King will greatly desire your beauty; Because He is your Lord, worship Him.”

    1. I suspect you know more about the Council and the schism than I do. However I’d go back to my point that people can be fluent in a language and still misunderstand each other. Husbands and wives again: both be absolutely sure they understand correctly, even when they don’t.

    2. I suspect you know more about the Council and schism than I do. However I’d go back to my point that disputants (husbands and wives again, for an easy example) can both be fluent in the same language, and nevertheless totally misunderstand each other, yet each can be completely sure they understand correctly. It can work the other way as well. Both can use different words but mean the same thing. Of course, that doesn’t prove that either is what has happened with Eastern Orthodox and Oriental Orthodox.

    3. Joseph, there was an interesting point that came out in the dialogues between the EO and OO theologians over their conferences immediately after WWII – while yes, they were both using Greek, they were not using it the same way, and moreover had not been using it the same way for centuries.

      You know the joke about the US and the UK? We’re two nations separated by a common language.

      Much is the same with the EO and OO, and they discovered how subtle the divides were by actually moving away from Greek and into other languages, when they discovered that when put into other languages they were arriving at the same Christologies (and accusations of differing Christologies were at the root of the divide), but in trying to go back to Greek they kept using the same words differently. That was a tremendous breakthrough, and this is why the Coptic and EO patriarchs of Antioch and Alexandria have made quite a number of moves to cooperate and mutually recognize each other’s sacraments.

      We’re very close, and what holds us still apart is very often political. I have great hope that reunion will happen very soon.

  3. Thanks for this, Father.
    I’ve read the joint statements of the various meetings since WWII. We are so very very close. And I rather appreciated how I think our prior patriarch put it (paraphrasing here from memory) – Christians in Syria and the Middle East need to meet together, worship together, pray together, and aid each other. In a generation or two of this, the people will force a restoration of communion and the bishops will have no choice but to get out of the way.
    I pray that this indeed comes to pass. It’s hard to put aside 16 centuries of acrimony and stubborn pride – nobody should expect overnight reconiclliation – but it must be done.

    1. Thanks for this excellent contribution to the discussion. The last paragraph of the article you submitted describes well what we “Eastern” Orthodox have often done wrong: “These issues remain important, and a reconciliation of the Chalcedonian and anti-Chalcedonian communions still demands that they are treated seriously and eirenically by the Chalcedonians. They are often brushed aside as irrelevant, but a proper understanding of our own tradition [i.e. non-Chalcedonian] requires that they [be] answered.” I remember a fellow Eastern Orthodox priest years ago who refused even to think about Oriental Orthodox: “Heretics! Heretics!” was all he would say. On the other hand, have non-Chalcedonians always tried to understand us Chalcedonians? As for the rest, without going into the specifics, it describes exactly what the problem is: Words and their limitations. The Chalcedonians did not see the Council as Nestorian. Even some Latins (yet another language) had questions about Chalcedon. The non-Chalcedonians rejected the Council because they thought it was Nestorian, not because they were Eutychian. While both groups in fact apparently believed the same things about Jesus Christ.

  4. Hello Father,
    Your article gladdened my heart. I am a member of Malankara Orthodox church. Being interested in church history, I have tried to understand the fathers of the fourth council and came to the same conclusion that you did :). It is beyond the capability of my simple brain 🙂
    When I visit Japan on official duties, I attend the services in Nicholaido church in Chiyoda, Tokyo because it feels so much more similar to my own Oriental church services.
    I have also noticed when I read through the many orthodox sites, that members of the Eastern Orthodox churches are more ‘judgemental’ when it comes to us Orientals than vice versa. Perhaps it is because Orientals have, from their horrific persecutions over the centuries, learnt to be less judgemental. All of the Oriental churches (except my own in India) has gone through and still going through horrible persecution – Armenian genocide, Syriac Sayfo genocide and their continuing trials in Syria and the Levant, Ethiopia&Eritria under communists, the trials of Emperor Haile Salasie, Copts and the continuing intolerance against them in Egypt.
    I pray for peace to all churches in the Middle East and that all Orthodox churches learn to live together and help each other.

  5. For a recent evaluation of the Two Agreed Statements, their theology, language, and other related issues, I would recommend reading “Orthodox Critiques of the Agreed Statements Between the Orthodox and Oriental Orthodox Churches” by Paul Ladouceur, found in St. Vladimir’s Theological Quarterly, Vol. 60, No. 3, (2016), at pages 333-368.

    In order to study the issues more thoroughly it would be best to read the papers and minutes of the participants of the early consultations, Aarhus (1964), Bristol (1967), Geneva (1970) and Addis Ababa (1971), that formed the background to the First Statement at Anba Bishoy (1989) and Second Statement at Chambesy (1990), all of which can be found in the Greek Orthodox Theological Review.

    I would note that so far only three churches, Antioch, Alexandria and Romania, have accepted the Agreed Statements. The churches of Greece and Jerusalem have been critical of them, and the church of Russia has stated that they are not sufficient and more work needs to be done.

    The matter is still open, and I think that a new effort needs to be undertaken to see if the faith of the two churches is in fact the same, although expressed in the past in differing terms. When I studied these consultations and statements in the late 1990s and early 2000s I was guardedly optimistic. But this is an important and controversial topic that needs sufficient time for reflection, reasoned criticism and response.

    The earlier Formula of Reunion (433) may be likened to an “agreed statement” between St. Cyril and John of Antioch, where language was crafted by opposing schools to reach a common understanding. The Council of Chalcedon was not the end of the story, and the Fifth Ecumenical Council in Constantinople (II) (553), with its adoption of St. Cyril’s Twelve Anathamatisms, can be seen as an effort at reconciliation with those who rejected Chalcedon. The hundred years between the two councils saw various dialogues and other ongoing efforts at reconciliation. Father Meyendorff, who participated in the consultations, wrote, “Never in the entire history of doctrinal controversies East and West, it seems, had so many theological overtures and concessions been made to dissidents by the official ecclesiastical establishment for the sake of unity.”

    1. Thank you very much for the update. As I mentioned in the article, Wilfred is a member of our parish in Cedarburg. I rather wish he had become a professor at one of our seminaries. Wilfred, when you retire maybe you could do some writing for the Church?

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