Non Chalcedonian churches and the Church of the East two Christologies in synopsis

Divergent conceptions ofthe Incarnation, which were articulatedin opposition to the theology adopted by the empire, stood at the core of the distinctive doctrinal and cultural identities of the churches of Syria, Egypt, Persia, and Armenia and were to play a decisive role in their history during the seventh century.

Christology of the Church of the East The Christology of the Church ofthe East derived from the Antiochene exeget-ical tradition. It had as its supporting structure the historical dimension of revelation. In the light of Heb. 10.5-7, stress was laid on Christ's integral humanity as the culminating point of God's salvific activity. In the light of Luke 2.40, 52, it accentuated the gradual character of divine revelation in the world and, following the exegesis of Theodore of Mopsuestia (d. 428), suggested a progressive unification of the two natures, divine and human, in the course of

Christ's life. For this reason the Church of the East's theological discourses insisted upon duality in reference to the divinity and humanity of Christ.

At the beginning of the seventh century, the language of two qnome was promoted by Babaithe Great (d. 628) and subsequently adopted by the Church of the East as its official teaching. The term qnoma had an ancient history, but in the texts of the period under discussion it may be interpreted as "concrete existence," that is, the individual instance of a particular nature. The Definition of the assembly of bishops of 612 (presumably held at Seleucia-Ctesiphon) contained the phrase "Christ is two natures and two qnome" and expressed two main concerns. Its theological concern, by distinguishing between divinity and humanity, intended to maintain the perfect transcendence of the former and avoid any idea of its suffering. The other concern was soteriological. By designating Christ's humanity, side by side with his divinity, as qnoma, the Church of the East intended to affirm its integral character, for Christ was the new Adam, the stem of new humankind (1 Cor. 15.45-49). Viewed from this perspective, humankind may acquire the hope of resurrection from the dead because, in Christ, it was the human being who is in him, the new Adam, who died and rose, but it was the God who is in him who raised him up. To affirm "one incarnate nature of God the Word"4 was to declare that those who are not consubstantial with God cannot be saved. This concern clearly emerges from the writings of Narsai (399-502) and Catholicos George (c. 680) as well as from the Oriental Synodicon edited by Catholicos Timothy I (780-823).5 Moreover, according to Timothy I, to affirm that Christ's humanity is the common nature of humankind allows us to attribute to it the individual human names found in the Prophets, such as "slave" or "servant," and thus to affirm its mortality, but God the Son, who had united it to himself, gradually subjected it to his will and rendered it immortal.6

The high degree of autonomy reserved for Christ's humanity in East Syrian Christology permitted this church to inscribe the Son of Man in various religious traditions: Christianity thus was presented to different Asian cultures with wide flexibility. For example, the inscription composed by the eastern dyophysite monk Adam in Chinese and Syriac in 781 near Chang'an, the capital of the Chinese Tang dynasty, borrowed numerous Taoist, Confucian, Buddhist, and Manichean expressions in order to explain the Christian doctrine.7

4 See above, note 2.

5 Brock, "Christology of the Church," 165-76.

6 Timothy I, Epistula de incarnatione, 186,1.13-23.

7 Pelliot, L'inscription nestorienne, 95-146.

Christology of the non-Chalcedonian churches

At the opposite pole stood the miaphysite Christology whose origins went back to the exegetical tradition of Alexandria.8 Beginning with Origen, the Alexandrians interpreted Scripture in the framework of the Platonic distinction between two levels of reality, the sensible and the intelligible, of which the former was the latter's image. This distinction also provided the key for a sacramental interpretation of the universe and of man. Christ's humanity was conceived of merely as a channel of God's revelation in the finite world. In the light of several biblical theophanies (Isa. 29.5; Mal. 3.1; Luke 2.13; Acts 9.3; 22.6), this tradition insisted upon the atemporal and immediate character of divine revelation as "Heavens torn apart" (Mark 1.10). In the light of John 1.14, the miaphysites were above all concerned to affirm the uninterrupted unity of the divine subject in Christ, sole actor of salvation, thus speaking of two births of the only Son of God. The above-quoted miaphysite formula expressed the union of divinity and humanity in Christ "asymmetrically": it allowed the understanding of the events of Christ's earthly life and his deeds as the "incarnate" extension of God's salvific activity in the world.

The controversy concerning the incorruptibility of Christ's body before the Resurrection, which had been opened by Julian ofHalicarnassus and Severus of Antioch around 520, continued to divide the miaphysites for several centuries. The Council of Mantzikert, convoked in 726 at the joint initiative of the Armenian Catholicos John of Ojun (717-28) and the West Syrian Patriarch Athanasius III (724-40), formulated an intermediate position: by assuming "decayed and corruptible" humanity, the Son of God rendered it "incorruptible." Incorruptibility did not mean, however, that Christ was exempt from the weaknesses of the human condition including the sufferings of the Passion. Yet Christ suffered not by inevitability but by sovereign divine decision. The acts of Mantzikert are one of the most important inter-ecclesial agreements achieved in the history of theological ideas, especially in view of the fact that the search for harmony was not promoted by any overarching authority seeking political cohesion. In Egypt, the quarrels between the various miaphysite groups persisted longer than elsewhere. Patriarchs Jacob (819-30) and Shenuda I (859-80) succeeded in dissolving the last groups that professed aphthartodocetism (the doctrine that rejected the reality of Christ's human sufferings) only at the beginning of the ninth century.

8 Grillmeier, Jesus der Christus, 7-35, 53-59.

The exclusion of aphthartodocetism allowed the Armenian Church to stabilize its Christological position.9 According to John of Ojun, the affirmations of oneness and duality in Christ formed an antinomic pair of which each member was equally important and served to balance the other.10 Following Cyril of Alexandria,11 the miaphysites refused to attribute the same ontological status to the spheres of theologia (concerned with God's eternal being, including the begetting before all ages) and of oikonomia (concerned with God's action within the created order, including the birth at Bethlehem). To the mind of Xosrovikthe Translator (d. c. 730), it was one thingto consider Christ's humanity in its own right and another to examine it in its union with the Creator's hypostasis: "The Lord's body is human by nature, but divine by union."12 The humanity assumed by God, although integral, no longer belonged to a man, hence this humanity is Divine. According to Isaac Mrut (c. 820-c. 890), "Christ has manifested to the world his paternal nature united to his maternal nature," that is, the "nature" whose subject is God the Father united to the "nature" whose subject is the Theotokos. In this way the Armenian divines linked their Christological language to the creedal theology of Nicaea I, which first defined Christ as "begotten of the Father" and only later spoke of him as "incarnate of the Virgin." Thus the miaphysites maintained the ancient kerygmatic character of Christological discourse, placing the Incarnation in the soteriological perspective and considering it as a sovereign act of the Trinity.

The miaphysites rejected the conceptualization proposed by the Council of Chalcedon which had conceived of Christ's divinity and humanity as two comparable entities belonging to one and the same category of nature, and which later were also construed as active principles discernible in the Savior. As a consequence, in the domain of ethics and social organization, the miaphysites have always remained extraneous to the distinction, later developed in Byzantine and Roman churches, between the spheres of spiritual and profane activities.

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