Unity of Faith in a Diversity of Traditions

Pope Benedict XVI’s plan for enriching cooperation among the Churches of the Middle East

It was impossible not to notice the colorful, varied display of liturgical vestments and clerical garb during the recent papal visit to Lebanon. The rich cultural diversity among Christians in the Middle East gives witness to the Apostolic traditions which began to develop almost immediately and independently from each other at the very beginning of Christianity. As the Apostles spread the gospel and worship of Jesus Christ to the far corners of the known world, distinct liturgical traditions naturally burgeoned as local churches took root.

The six liturgical traditions of the Catholic Church were conspicuously present by the end of the fourth century and are still celebrated in Lebanon and throughout the Middle East today: the Liturgy of St. Mark (Coptic and Ethiopian), the Liturgies of Sts. John Chrysostom and Basil (Greek Melkite), the Liturgy of St. James (Maronite, Syrian, and Syro-Malankara), the East Syrian Liturgy (Chaldean and Syro-Malabar), the Armenian Liturgy, and the Latin Mass.

Pope Benedict XVI strongly affirmed this diversity of traditions as a harmony within the unity of faith in his post-synodal apostolic exhortation “The Church in the Middle East,” which was signed and distributed to the major hierarchs during his recent visit to Lebanon:

Like my Predecessors in the See of Peter, I wish here to state once more my desire to ensure that the rites of the Eastern Churches, as the patrimony of the whole Church of Christ in which shines forth the tradition coming down from the Apostles through the Fathers, and which, in its variety, affirms the divine unity of the Catholic faith, are observed and promoted conscientiously.

Pope Benedict dedicated a large portion of this exhortation to urging the different Churches to pray, learn, and work together in order to promotes true communion among Christians and true peace, which he defined as “the state of those who live in harmony with God and with themselves, with others and with nature.” He invited the Catholics of the various ecclesial communities to foster relationships with each other and to be mutually engaged in one another’s traditions.

In describing the harmony that the various Churches share he reflected on the Church as both universal and particular. In beautiful language, he spoke of the presence of the whole in each of its parts. But he challenged the Churches with these words, “The sincere recognition of the goodness of the other [Churches] includes acting in harmonious cooperation with them.”

Pope Benedict suggested several means of cooperation. For example, he encouraged Catholics to pray with other Catholic ecclesial communities and upheld the lay faithful of the Middle East, who already live this spiritual communion with their brothers and sisters in Christ by attending liturgical services outside of their own Church.

He also suggested that an authentic renewal of liturgical text and celebrations be carried out in conjunction with the Orthodox Churches, as much as possible. For example, he encouraged common translations of the liturgical text and universal prayers, like the Our Father, to ensure that various Christians from different communities would be able to pray together using the same words.  On the other hand, Benedict clarified, “Ecumenical unity does not mean uniformity of traditions and celebrations.”

Cooperative Bible studies—Cure for Christian disunity

The most brilliant idea was Benedict’s call for cooperative Bible studies among the Churches. To understand the genius of this proposal one must know something of the history of the ancient Churches in Antioch, Syria and Alexandria, Egypt. These two patriarchal sees were the cultural and theological centers of the Christian world for the first four centuries Anno Domini.

Alexandria emphasized the divinity of Christ, Antioch his humanity. Alexandria focused on the anagogical and allegorical interpretation of Scripture, Antioch on the literal and historical interpretation. Each school produced great saints and fathers of the Church, and each school suffered its share of errors and misapprehensions. Antioch was the school of Arius and Nestorius, for example, while Alexandria produced the controversial theology of Monophysitism. For centuries, the two schools battled to have their theological vocabulary understood. Alexandrian theology dominated the first three ecumenical councils (325, 381, 431); Antiochian theology was integrated in the fourth and fifth councils (451, 553). Each of these schools played an important part in the development of doctrine. 

The biggest debate was Christological and centered on the interpretation of John 1:14, “ὁ Λογος σαρξ ἐγενετο,” (“the Word became flesh…”). The Fathers prayerfully sought language to describe the mystery of the Incarnation. Without their ongoing debate during this time period, Catholics would be bereft of the rich theology we enjoy today. It was not merely a matter of being right—it was a matter of salvation. Christians must properly understand God’s revelation to mankind if they are to enter into loving, eternal relationship with the Blessed Trinity.

The great Christological debate between Antioch and Alexandria was brought to a climax at the Council of Chalcedon in 451. Ultimately, a consensus was found that combined the best of both schools. At the insistence of the Roman (Byzantine) Emperor Theodosius, the Chalcedonian Definition was written. It drew on the letters of St. Cyril of Alexandria, the Antiochian Formula of Reunion, and Pope St. Leo’s Tome. Because of this council, we use the phrase “Christ is true God and true man.” Of great significance, the formula also conceived of making a distinction between the terms physis and hypostasis. The Definition of Chalcedon stated that Christ is one Son, one prosopon, and one hypostasis, but two physis: human and divine. The great Alexandrian theologian, St. Cyril, had used the words physis and hypostasis interchangeably, but Antioch had made a distinction.

The verbal differences are hard for English-speaking Christians to understand, but to justify some of the confusion, it is worth noting that the theology of the seven ecumenical councils was discussed and written in Greek, while native Egyptians spoke Coptic and the Syrians spoke Syriac. The Greek terms are confusing enough when translated into English. Physis can mean nature, order, species, origin, or kind. Hypostasis can mean nature, person, being, substance, individual, agent, or subject. Prosopon can be translated nature, person, face, mask, or character. Because the Copts and Syrians used Greek as a medium, it was inevitable that linguistic misunderstandings would occur. They struggled to understand each other’s theological nuances.

The two physis of Christ were further articulated at Chalcedon as “unconfused and unaltered” in order to refute the teachings of the Alexandrian Eutyches. Christ’s physis were also defined as “undivided and inseparable,” which refuted the teachings of the Antiochian-trained bishop Nestorius. Far from bringing clarity and union, these distinctions were rejected by Antioch and Alexandria alike, leading to the first schism of the Church, formally alienating the Latin (Rome) and Greek-speaking Christians from the Syriac, Coptic, and Armenian-speaking Christians of the world.

By the end of the fifth century, Egypt had separated and formed its own church while Syria divided between those who accepted Chalcedon and were loyal to the Roman Empire (Melkites) and those who, following Nestorius, developed a Syriac tradition of their own. This Syriac tradition was cultivated in the ephemeral school of Edessa, which was closed by Emperor Zeno in 489 and relocated to Nisibis, Persia, outside the boundaries of the Empire. Here the Syrians focused on translating and integrating Greek philosophy, sacred Scripture, and other religious texts into Syriac language and thought. The ideas of Aristotle and Theodore of Mopsuestia, especially, were the impetus of these later two schools.

Christians now refer to those who rejected the council of Chalcedon (Copts, Syrians, and Armenians) as the Oriental Orthodox. In the last 40 years, much has been gained through dialogue with the Oriental Churches and the Eastern Christian Churches. Both sides tend to agree that the Christological differences that caused schism were essentially linguistic, and that both parties profess one and the same faith in Christ using different vocabulary. Reunion with the Pope of Rome has already taken place among a percentage of the members and ecclesiarches of the Oriental Church traditions, e.g. the Coptic, Ethiopian, Syrian, and Armenian Catholic Churches.

It is with poignant attention, then, that Pope Benedict has now invited the various Churches of the Middle East to again study the sacred Scriptures together, drawing on the vast intellectual wealth of the various biblical schools rooted in the one truth, Jesus Christ:

The exegetical schools of Alexandria, Antioch, Edessa, and Nisibe contributed significantly to the Church’s understanding and dogmatic formulation of the Christian mystery in the fourth and fifth centuries. For this, the whole Church remains indebted to them. The representatives of the various schools of textual interpretation were agreed on the traditional principles of exegesis accepted by the Churches of both East and West. The most important of these principles is the conviction that Jesus Christ incarnates the intrinsic unity of the two Testaments and consequently the unity of God’s saving plan in history (cf. Mt 5:17). The disciples would only come to understand this unity after the resurrection, once Jesus had been glorified (cf. Jn 12:16). A second principle is fidelity to a typological reading of the Bible, whereby certain Old Testament events are seen as a prefiguration (a type and figure) of realities in the new Covenant in Jesus Christ, who is thus the hermeneutical key to the entire Bible (cf. 1 Cor 15:22, 45-47; Heb 8:6-7). The Church’s liturgical and spiritual writings bear witness to the continued validity of these two principles of interpretation, which shape the ecclesial celebration of the word of God and inspire Christian witness. The Second Vatican Council went on to explain that the correct meaning of the sacred texts is found by considering the content and unity of the whole of Scripture, in the light of the living Tradition of the whole Church and the analogy of faith. (“The Church in the Middle East”, 70)

The successor of Peter encouraged Christians of the Middle East to know and live their faith.  A study of sacred Scripture is a sound foundation and can help “dispel prejudices and mistaken ideas about the Bible which become the source of needless and demeaning controversies.” He recommended a contemporary presentation of patristic theology which can “compliment and enrich the teaching of Scripture.” Benedict XVI also recommended serious catechesis through a utilization of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, including a study of the spiritual life as presented by the Catechism and the Fathers of the Church. And like the cooperative Bible study idea, he would also like to see the Church communities working together in catechesis.

In short, Pope Benedict is evidently calling the Christians of the Middle East to unite and see themselves as one people, laying aside their differences with the one goal of uniting humanity in Christ. Simultaneously, he suggests as a means to this end not an egalitarian, lowest-common-denominator Christianity, but a vibrant sharing of ideas and a fruitful cultural and intellectual exchange that will unite Christians in authentic personal communion and meld them through respect and mutual esteem for each other’s traditions. There seems to be wisdom in this exhortation that could also be pertinent to English-speaking Christians. One doesn’t necessarily have to pilgrimage to the Holy Land to encounter the Eastern Catholic Churches and experience the wealth their traditions have to offer. One or two may be nearby, waiting to be explored.

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About Christopher B. Warner 18 Articles
Christopher B. Warner lives with his wife and son on a hobby farm in West Michigan. He has three degrees in Theology including an M.A. from Holy Apostles College and Seminary. His graduate research focused on what Sacred Scripture, Patristics, and Catholic social teaching have to say about marriage & family issues and domestic financial management. He and his wife are small-business owners. In his spare time, Christopher works with couples as a small-business and personal finance coach at christopherbwarner.org.