Ecumenism as Dialogue or Monologue? (Part One: An Overview)

Ecumenism as Dialogue or Monologue? (Part One: Overview)

On the eve of the highly-promoted meeting in Jerusalem between the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew and Pope Francis of the Roman Catholic Church1, this ‘Apostolic Pilgrimage’2 has produced a fair amount of press.

Largely positive, media coverage lauds the potential for “a new era”3 in Rome-Constantinople relations, which the 1964 meeting between Ecumenical Patriarch Athenagoras and Pope Paul VI began. This ‘dialogue of love’ between the Churches of Rome and Constantinople, defined as “the general exchanges and communications between their leaders and representatives” has produced, in turn, a “dialogue of truth,” which is the “official theological dialogues and conversations” of the last fifty years.4

A presence among the Orthodox, however, of concern5 regarding this pilgrimage to Jerusalem begs the question: Does this event—and the two dialogues it symbolically6 represents—embody the Orthodox Church’s traditional method for relating to extra-ecclesial communities? That is to say, Christian communities outside the unity of the Orthodox-Catholic faith?

To answer this question even cursorily requires an examination of the Holy Scriptures, our deified Holy Fathers, the historical, Orthodox Councils (local, regional, Ecumenical, and ‘pan-Orthodox’)—both their dogmatic horoi7 and their canonical stipulations—and the liturgical ‘consciousness’ of the Church. It also requires that we answer a related question: What assumptions are held concerning extra-ecclesial communities? In other words, how do we approach ‘churches’ outside of the unity of the Orthodox-Catholic Church? Do we presume that they are outside, and therefore heretical (or schismatic)? Or do we presume that the other, extra-ecclesial community is a partner of equal dignity in dialogue?

This second question will be addressed in a subsequent essay. For our purposes here, I would like to simply offer an overview of the Church’s traditional way of dealing with communities that profess Christ, yet are outside the communion of the Church.

For the moment, let’s ignore the paramount heresies of early Church history; e.g. Arianism, Sabellianism, Docetism, Novationism, and so on. Instead, we’ll focus on two extra-ecclesial communities: the Monophysite Churches (Coptic, Jacobite Syrian, Armenian, and Malankaran) of the fifth century and the Protestant Reformers of the sixteenth.

The Miracle of St. Euphemia at the Fourth Ecumenical Council

St. Euphemia was martyred in Chalcedon under the Roman Emperor Diocletian’s persecution (ca. A.D. 304). While her relics were placed in that city’s grand basilica, this Saint’s work was not yet complete.8

The Fourth Ecumenical Council, called by Emperor Marcian to address the ‘one-nature’ teaching of the monophysite party9, met in the summer of 451 at the very church where St. Euphemia’s relics had been laid to rest. The deliberations continued for weeks on end, with no decisive resolution imminent.

At last, the Patriarch St. Anatolios of Constantinople suggested that the assembly of 630 bishops fervently seek the guidance of the Holy Spirit through his deified Saint Euphemia, whose relics were discovered to be wonder-working during this Council. And so, the Orthodox bishops wrote down their ‘two-nature’ doctrinal formula, and the Monophysite party wrote down their own, sealing them in separate scrolls. When the tomb of St. Euphemia was opened, both scrolls were placed on her relics. With Emperor Marcian onlooking, her tomb was sealed and an Imperial guard kept watch for three days. During this time, both groups set themselves to severe prayer and fasting.

At the end of three days, and in the presence of the whole council, the Emperor and Patriarch opened St. Euphemia’s tomb. And what did they find? St. Euphemia was holding the orthodox bishops’ ‘two-nature’ confession in her right hand, while the monophysite scroll was at her feet. She then raised her right hand and gave the scroll to the Patriarch.

Many hesitating bishops threw off their former vacillation, proclaiming the orthodox ‘two-nature’ dogma. Those who persisted in error were then condemned and excommunicated by the fathers of the Fourth Ecumenical Council, a decision that severed the communities we know as the Coptic Orthodox, Syrian Jacobite, Eritrean, Ethiopian, and Malankara (Indian) Orthodox from the unity of the Orthodox Church.

This Council’s dogmatic horos, and its synodal condemnation of the monophysite leaders Dioscoros, Eutyches, et al. were reaffirmed by all subsequent Ecumenical Councils from 553 to 1351, each time with the introductory words: “We, then, following the holy Fathers.” In addition, the dogma of this Council, including its condemnation (by name) of the heretical proponents, has entered into the liturgical consciousness of the Church in her various hymns and canons. Additionally, the Fourth Ecumenical Council is commemorated twice every year by the Orthodox Church (both July 16 and the Ninth Sunday after Pentecost).

The Three Answers of Patriarch Jeremiah II to the Scholars at Tübingen (1576–1581)

As the sixteenth century Reformation exploded across Europe, it was not long before some of the Reformers considered the history of the ‘Greek Church,’ which, to them, had also avoided the errors of their Papal opponents. Beginning in 1576, Evangelical (‘Lutheran’) scholars at the University of Tübingen sent a confession of their beliefs (the Augsburg Confession) along with a letter expressing their hope for a positive reception and potential unification:

[T]hey said that, though because of the distance between their countries there was some difference in their ceremonies, the Patriarch would acknowledge that they had introduced no innovation into the principal things necessary for salvation; and that they embraced and preserved, as far as their understanding went, the faith that had been taught to them by the Apostles, the Prophets, and the Holy Fathers, and was inspired by the Holy Spirit, the Seven Councils, and the Holy Scriptures.10

After some delay, Patriarch Jeremiah II of Constantinople composed a point-by-point response in May of 1576.11 In this first letter to the Reformation scholars, Jeremiah gently corrects several aspects of their understanding of the Christian faith12:

  • Their Creed needs to exclude the Filioque (‘and the Son’) clause, as it is both not original to the Creed and Theologically heretical
  • He adds twelve ‘amplifying articles’ regarding the Church’s Tradition
  • Baptism should be by triple immersion—not ‘aspersion’—followed immediately by Chrismation
  • Justification by faith ‘alone’ is not scriptural, and works must be added to our faith in order to be ‘justifying’
  • Absolute predestination and unconditional election are rejected
  • Chastises them for omitting prayer to the Saints, and especially to the Most Holy Theotokos

After multiple exhortations to follow the traditions of the Church, the Patriarch ends his first response to them with this entreaty:

O most wise German men and beloved children of our humble self, since, as sensible men, you wish with your whole heart to enter our most Holy Church, we, as affectionate fathers, willingly accept your love and friendliness, if you will follow the Apostolic and Synodal decrees in harmony with us and will submit to them. For then you will indeed be in communion with us, and having openly submitted to our holy and catholic church of Christ, you will be praised by all prudent men. ln this way the two churches will become one by the grace of God, we shall live together hereafter and we will exist together in a God-pleasing way until we attain the heavenly kingdom. May all of us attain it in Christ Jesus, to whom belongs glory unto the ages. Amen.13

This First Answer reached Germany in the summer of 1576. The Tübingen theologians carefully considered their response, sending it along the following year. It didn’t reach Constantinople until 1578, whereupon Jeremiah II composed his Second Answer. The softer tone of the first letter noticeably hardened in the second. The Patriarch continued to emphasize the Apostolic and Ecumenical teachings on the Filioque, free will, and justification by faith ‘alone,’ with greater clarity (and at greater length).

He ends his second letter with another lengthy invitation to embrace the Orthodox Church:

Finally, having understood Orthodoxy from the Holy Scriptures, come enter into it with all your souls, O wise and sagacious men, and put far away from you every irrational innovation, which the host of Ecumenical Teachers and of the Church has not accepted . . . You, as obeying your leaders and submitting to them (Heb 13:17) and not “disputing about words, which does no good” (2 Tim. 2:14). And we, as having spoken in the ears of those who have listened, and sowing in the good soil (Luke 8:8) . . . [I]t is not necessary for you to interpret and understand some of the passages of the Scripture in any other way than that in which the luminaries of the Church and Ecumenical Teachers have interpreted . . . For nothing else is the cause of dissension than this and only this, which when you correct it, we will be, with the grace of God, in agreement; and we will become one in the Faith, the glory of God. For having researched diligently some of the passages of Holy Scripture, which you referred to in your first and second letters which you sent to us, we saw clearly that you had misinterpreted them, perhaps in following your new teachers. For this reason we again entreat you to understand the passages as the Ecumenical Teachers of the Church have interpreted them and which interpretations the seven ecumenical synods and the other regional ones have ratified. For as we have already said, it is not necessary to rise up and remove everlasting boundaries which the Fathers have established, so that we will not violate the definition which was mentioned at the beginning of the Sixth Synod and be subject to penalties. Therefore, if up to the present something has been violated, you who are prudent may correct it from now, and you will be worthy of praise by God, as well as by men and by us. For to err is human, but the correction is angelic and salvific. May you take care of this, also, so that the grace and the mercy of God be with you.14

This Second Answer (ca. 1579) was received, and a response was sent. The Patriarch’s Third Answer of 1581 was considerably briefer, and of an entirely different tone:

Therefore, we request that from henceforth you do not cause us more grief, nor write to us on the same subject if you should wish to treat these luminaries and theologians of the Church in a different manner. You honor and exalt them in words, but you reject them in deeds. For you try to prove our weapons which are their holy and divine discourses as unsuitable. And it is with these documents that we would have to write and contradict you. Thus, as for you, please release us from these cares. Therefore, going about your own ways, write no longer concerning dogmas; but if you do, write only for friendship’s sake. Farewell.15

“Go your own way.”

This is the historical and traditional attitude of the Orthodox Church towards ecumenical dialogue, as especially exemplified by Patriarch Jeremiah II and the first seven Ecumenical Councils. As a faithful shepherd, Jeremiah II was undoubtedly following the apostle Paul’s scriptural admonition:

As for a man who is factious16, after admonishing him once or twice, have nothing more to do with him. —Titus 3:10

Whatever one’s personal feelings might be regarding this sort of dialogue, the approach of Jeremias II was both thoroughly traditional and thoroughly biblical—as any and all actions on the part of the Orthodox Church should assuredly be.

Show 16 footnotes

  1. The phrase ‘Roman Catholic Church’ here is used in a conventional manner, out of charity, and with no theological intent; other terms used throughout this essay—and in the Orthodox Tradition—are Latins, Papists (not frequently as it connotes a polemical reality), Westerners (used to denote the geographical origins and location of the Latin community), Franks (used in certain circumstances to denote the ethno-cultural influence via Charlemagne, and following on the formerly Orthodox Roman Patriarchate and its subsequent identification with the same
  3. “The Purpose of the Meeting Between Pope Francis and Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew in Jerusalem,”
  4. ibid
  5. e.g. The letter of Greek Orthodox Metropolitan of Piraeus, Seraphim, and His Eminence, the Metropolitan Andrew of Dryinoupolis
  6. “The forthcoming meeting of Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew and Pope Francis in Jerusalem this coming May is expected to be a strong symbolic confirmation of the commitment and determination to continue the path which the two great Church leaders inaugurated half a century ago,” from ‘The Purpose of the Meeting
  7. Plural of horos (Gk: ‘oρος), meaning definition, used as the dogmatic definition of a council; also used in Greek for rule or boundary-marker
  8. More details here
  9. The monophysite view, generally, held that Christ, after the Incarnation, was composed of one nature, or mono-physeis, whereas the Orthodox view was that Christ was one person in two natures (duo-physeis). The monophysite party’s views were actually represented along a continuum: from the extreme monophysitism of Eutyches—who famously proclaimed that Christ’s human nature was swallowed up in his divine nature like a drop of water in the ocean—which was rejected even by the majority of monophysites, to Alexandrian Pope Dioscoros, to a more moderate monophysitism of Severus of Antioch.
  10. Benz, Wittenberg und Byzanz, pp. 94ff; excerpted from Stephen Runciman’s The Great Church in Captivity (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1968); Found here
  11. The Orthodox Patriarch’s three letters sent in response to the Lutheran scholars’ request for dialogue and debate are considered ‘Symbolical Books,’ therefore carrying significant authority in Orthodox Tradition.
  12. ibid
  13. ibid
  14. ibid
  15. ibid
  16. lit: ‘heretic


  1. Joseph says

    My humble opinion is that you must get your facts right about oriental orthodoxy.We are NOT monophysites.We are miaphysites.We confess that Christ was human and God with fullnes of both persons,with full union without any confusion,and his fullness of manhood doesn’t affected his fullness of the person of God.HE Was God-man.What the fathers said was that HE was God-man in one nature.I am again explaining that one nature doesn’t mean,we are saying that he was divine only.Confusion between the fathers arised when,one group said Christ was two natures in one person,and others two persons in one nature.Actually that was linguistic problem.There might be other political problems also.Another proof is that saints cannot differ.All eastern orthodox and roman catholics agree that St.Isaac the syrian was Saint.He was a member of Oriental orthodox church.

    • Charles D. Smith says

      An absolutely fascinating discussion which is probably not over and shouldn’t be taken lightly. My question is this: will consideration further on this produce more light, or just heat? In today’s vernacular, Just Askin…

    • says

      Hi Joseph,

      Thank you for your comments. May I offer a response to the points you raise:

      1. I understand that Oriental Orthodoxy denies the proper use of the term ‘monophysite’ for their communion, but to speak plainly, the Chalcedonian Orthodox Church has traditionally referred to the Orientals (Coptic, Syrian Jacobite, Armenian, and Ethiopian) as essentially monophysite. And by traditionally I mean that our saints – St John of Damascus, St Maximos the Confessor, Pope St Leo the Great, et al – all have written of the monophysitism of the Oriental churches. As well, our liturgical services, divinely inspired, call those assemblies the same, and our Synodikon anathematizes them as such.

      2. You write: “We confess that Christ was human and God with fullnes of both persons,with full union without any confusion,and his fullness of manhood doesn’t affected his fullness of the person of God.” I’m not sure if you mean to say that Christ was human and God with fullness of “both persons.” That would in fact be a Nestorian view of Christ. Did you mean “both natures”?

      3. Additionally, the problem with general statements such as you have given, any one of a number of heresies can be believed while accepting this generic formula. The questions that need to be asked are: [A] Do you believe that Christ – being fully God and fully man, united in one person – exists now *in two natures*? [B] Do you believe that Christ has a human will and a divine will, i.e., that Christ has two natural wills, both working in harmony?

      4. It is not merely a linguistic problem, as if our saints – Pope St Leo, St Maximos and the rest -and- your “saints” Discorus, Severos, Peter, Jacob, at al – were all arguing over mere semantics. They *all* believed then that they were fighting for the truth as they saw it. One side was right and one side was wrong.

      5. What is your response to my recounting above of the miracle of St Euphemia?

      6. You are right that there were political problems during the early 5th century. However, the case can be made that it is actually the Coptics (and others) who used their narrow reading of St Cyril as a pretext to establish their political independence from the Empire.

      7. St Isaac the Syrian was not a member of the Oriental Orthodox churches. He was born in modern day Qatar, outside the Roman Empire in the 7th century. He was made a bishop in the Church of the East – not Nestorian, but following in some respects Theodore of Mopsuestia who held opposing views to the Oriental communities.

      • Anastasios says

        Wouldn’t your point “6” actually be an argument in favor of Oriental Orthdoxy? At least in today’s world (where empire is universally regarded as a bad thing, and where the American Revolution is regarded as a seminal moment), that would seem to be the case. Good luck trying to win over any Americans, or indeed anyone in the Third World (all of whom view empires and imperialism as a very bad thing indeed) with that argument. Comparisons could also be drawn with Putin, who seems to view himself as a modern-day “emperor” and has no qualms with invading even other Orthodox countries like Ukraine and Georgia, etc.

        Also, the story described in the article (about Euphemia’s relics), if it indeed occurred, sounds like a seance. That, too, would seem to argue _against_ the Chalcedonian position. If seances are bad, why side with the party who had to rely on a seance to support their views rather than arguing from scripture, reason, and tradition, etc.

        • says


          Actually, #6 is a point *against* the Monophysites, not in favor. They used a limited – and faulty – reading of St Cyril to further their own political and theological agenda. They wanted independence in both spheres, almost never a good thing.

          Well, today’s “world”, unlike the mind of the Fathers, views Empire as a bad thing precisely because it views any (divine) Authority and any (divinely revealed) Truth as arbitrary, hierarchical, arrogant, and empirically unverifiable. However, Orthodoxy has always viewed both Authority (monarchy and episcopacy) and Truth (society and dogma) favorably.

          It is out of the scope of this post and this comment thread to deal with the geopolitics of Russia, Putin, and the West (which is arguably far more imperialistic that Putin could ever hope to be). I’ll leave my reply at that, and maybe I’ll consider a more detailed future essay on the topic.

          As for confusing a seance with the Apostolic and Orthodox belief and experience – or “Communion” – of the Saints, I would only direct one to a consideration of relics, prayers to the Saints (cf Tobit, Philemon, the entire experience of the early Church, the entire liturgical tradition of the Church from the earliest times, et al), and so on.

          As I understand them, seances are done for earthly reasons and to seek out departed loved ones with no discrimination as to the persons involved or to the method or to the frequency of such attempts. This lack of discrimination, which comes from a lack of the Truth and of being in communion with the Church, inevitably leads one to an experience of human wish-fulfillment, or in many cases, worse: demonic activity.

          Any Saint that is glorified within the Apostolic (Orthodox) Church has her testimony of the trustworthiness of the Saint, both dogmatically and spiritually. As such, that Saint can be relied on for patronage, role modeling, and such. Too, the ascetic tradition of the Church advises a stringent avoidance of communicating with the dead so as to avoid communion with the demons unwittingly. But, this is done as a regular piece of advice, and especially for individuals who might otherwise be led astray. However, the Church in Council, can ask for the Saints’ prayers and guidance, especially in extraordinary circumstances. There are numerous examples of the Saints’ appearances to the living throughout Orthodox Church history. These examples, and the Communion of Saints in general, *are* part of Holy Tradition, so that is simply what the deified bishops at the Fourth Council did.

  2. Joseph Hostetler says

    Thank you, Michael, for this!
    Thank you, also, for your comments over at O&H re: the text “On the Recent Events in Jerusalem and their Ecclesiological Underpinnings”.
    Your comments on St. Basil’s first canon –

    Could you describe where in St Basil’s Letter 188 that he mentions validity? Rather, he talks of *acceptance* or *rejection* of the non-Orthodox baptisms *in the context of their reception into the Church*. He is not speaking, nor, to my knowledge, does any Father speak, of the validity *per se* – or outside and apart from – the Catholic Church.

    – were much needed. Did he answer you? Did anyone?

    Thank you.


    • says

      Hi Joseph,

      Glory to God! Yes, there have been several responses since then, the first of which was not particularly helpful, but in the end, there was a more explicit denial of the “validity per se” belief, which was reassuring.

      I also appreciate your various posts which elaborate on the traditional and patristic teaching on Orthodox ecclesiology.


  3. M. Woerl says

    It might be mentioned concerning the Non-Chalcedonians that they not only reject the Fourth Ecumenical Council, but also the Fifth, Sixth, and Seventh, which, in the “Dialogues,” they refused to adhere to. No matter what they might wear, what ceremonies they might perform, as rejecting four of the seven Ecumenical Councils, they cannot be called “Orthodox” by any means, except a complete misunderstanding of what Orthodoxy is, and what Ecumenical Councils are. Also, their ecumenism is far above and beyond even the Phanar’s …

  4. M. Woerl says

    “put far away from you every irrational innovation, which the host of Ecumenical Teachers and of the Church has not accepted . . . ”
    This is also good advice to our ecumenists today …