Theosis and other problems: On Orthodox dis[unity] – Part 3

This is the third and last installment in this series. You can read the first two here and here.

I want to discuss some of the issues and characteristics that I’ve seen come up time and time again in this journey. I’m not claiming this to be an exhaustive piece or even a comprehensive one. This is not my specific area of expertise. If you wish to learn more and want to dialogue with someone who really ‘knows his stuff’, Father Peter Farrington is your priest! Please find his site specific to this topic here.

Defining Orthodoxy

One of the hardest parts of this, but the most necessary, is defining exactly what determines what one calls Orthodox. Is Orthodoxy adhering to seven councils, or three? Who gets to make that decision? Is Orthodoxy about whether one says in two natures or is it someone who says of two natures? Who decides? Who got to decide on the dictionary definition of being an Orthodox Christian? Someone will reply, it’s not the specific formulation – it’s a spirit, it’s whether or not one carried the mind of the early Church or not. I might agree with this. If so, then do we use the councils as our definition? Do we use formulations as our definitions still? I’m asking this, because so often in the dialogue (or more often, debate), though someone will give a more esoteric definition of Orthodoxy, yet they will still insist on particulars, and on what authority that person has decided on those particulars, is often actually unknown to the two who are dialoguing. What is the magic line by which we consider the fathers’ opinions binding? For example:

The Oriental Orthodox will say, we do not accept the Council of Chalcedon. We may have no theological obstacle to current definitions of faith of the EO, but let us say that we do not accept that council. Please don’t be distracted, dear reader, by what you think of that stance, but take it for the sake of argument today – grant for the sake of dialogue that we at least think we have a valid reason. Obviously, there’s going to be a cutoff point for the Oriental Orthodox from that point on of “who” they believe is “Orthodox”. The Catholics and the EO split in 1054. The Catholics will see the “Church” as those who remained with Rome. The Byzantines will see those who took their side. Everyone will call “orthodox” whoever was on their own side! So are councils going to be the defining point? What about the many councils that were held in each church that were not necessarily ecumenical? What about councils in the Eastern Orthodox Church that promoted iconoclasm? Was the council that was considered ecumenical simply the one that won? Or was the one that won, the one that had the right view? The question here is one of definition. What determines whether something is orthodox or not: is it a faith and tradition, or is it mechanically defined by acceptance of particular notions? Many Orthodox today still speak of 7 Sacraments, does this mean they are less Orthodox than those who speak about things being sacramental? Is the definition of Orthodox going to have a line based on whether or not one enumerates the Mysteries as seven? Or is it someone who believes that God works mystically in physical expressions? You get the point.

Often in our dialogues we are speaking much more mechanically than we would like to believe. We need to open our minds and dig a little bit deeper into issues for what they really mean. Without a clear definition of a thing, we cannot assess that thing.

Confusing Problems in Orthodoxy for Heterodoxy

This is a big problem. Here, I am speaking of when something goes wrong in either a parish, a diocese, or in a patriarchate, and we assume that this makes a person, a bishop, or a church…heterodox. I’m going to be super free in my speech here. From the Coptic Orthodox side, let me just name it: theosis. We had a patriarch who wrote against it. That’s a fact. What was he writing against, though? Was he writing against what most people even believe about Theosis? Was it properly defined? I will discuss this particular example again shortly, but my point in this section is to say, let’s say there’s a problem. Let’s say this problem affects people. Let’s say that wrong happens as a result. Does this mean the Church is heterodox? If so, why? Is it because of a definition that we know, or is it because the Church didn’t use the same word as another Church to say the same thing? There are two questions:
a) What is the objective measure that makes a certain thing right or wrong?
b) At what point do we label a whole group wrong, as opposed to an idea or a movement?

From the Eastern side, Father Thomas Hopko gave a long series on Ancient Faith Radio on Liturgics. In it, he accused the Russian Church at one point of being half Catholic and half Protestant. They were so obsessed with the Protestant reformation, he alleges, that they had forgotten their Orthodox identity on the same issues. Can I, as a result, say that the Russian Orthodox Church ceased to be Orthodox? If so, what made it become “Orthodox” again? Or can I, instead, say that the Russian Church faced some theological issues in a particular time, and they rectified it? What is the deciding factor about whether it was a problem or whether or not they are heterodox? Then, who makes that call? Who restored them?

Eastern Orthodox in my home jurisdiction often allowed intermarriage between Orthodox and non-Orthodox in the church. This practice would be seen as totally heterodox by most religious Copts that I know. We do not bless a marriage between two people who do not both actually believe in Orthodoxy. Can I use this as my defining parameter of whether or not to “accept” the Eastern Orthodox as Orthodox? Or can I say that we have variation in this thing and we need to understand why they are doing it and from where it came before assessing the issue? If I find this practice heterodox and don’t dialogue, then if I ask this person’s Bishop and he approves it, is his bishop now by definition heterodox? If his Patriarch permits it, is his whole church now heterodox? Why is this issue “less” of a big deal than other issues or a “bigger deal” than others? Who gets to decide the ranking of issue size?

People today want to saint Origen and Augustine – both of whom had wrong teachings – are they heterodox for having faulty ideas here and there? What defines heterodoxy? It would be someone who is not orthodox. So how do we define Orthodoxy? And we come back to square one.

Churches can have problems. Churches will have problems. People will make mistakes. Does that make a person or a Church heretical? At what point does a problem get elevated to meriting heterodox status? Often this is not answered, and yet in dialogue, we will operate under the assumption that everything is ‘obvious’. It is not.


This is one that really irks me more than other ones. Too often in “dialogue” (or debate, rather), people are not aware of one another’s context, and judge one another based on each individual’s context.

Let’s visit the Theosis topic as a great example of this. Pope Shenouda of blessed memory, wrote against Theosis in a book called “modern heresies”. To a Canadian or American or English-speaking Orthodox person, that sentence alone is scandalous. To a western reader, they will gasp and say, “How could he not only not believe in theosis, but call it heresy! Clearly he’s a heretic!” False. Please understand context.

a) What he wrote about was not even what anyone today defines Theosis as being. The Arabic word denoted a real change in nature that a person is becoming God by nature, rather than grace. Most people don’t mean that when they teach the topic, and so what he was writing about was not that issue.
b) The Arabic word is particularly problematic in an Islamic context. A westerner may reply, “It shouldn’t matter what other people say or think, we teach what’s right”, but that would be the Westerner’s ethnocentricity speaking. We do need to care in Egypt. If the word is understood wrong, and people are being attacked for that wrong misunderstanding, and it’s hard enough to protect our kids from the pressures of Islam in and of itself, then I would hope that the pastoral leader cares about these pressures.
c) The Coptic Orthodox Church was in survival mode for an insanely long period of time. We cared about surviving, not about putting out treatises on doctrine. Certainly, treatises did come out here and there, but they were not a focus. Read a history of the Copts and you will see why. Pope Shenouda was part of an era that was rediscovering the fathers, and his influences were going to be what were available to him. These were predominantly Augustinian writings, Catholic writings and Protestant writings. So to expect him to suddenly have acquired all knowledge is probably unreasonable in his context.

Could there be other factors in the issue? Personal fights or tiffs with others? Certainly there could be. Could there be mistakes made in expressions? Certainly. Could Pope Shenouda make mistakes? Of course! Does this mean that Copts don’t believe in Theosis? No. Does it mean that the Coptic Orthodox Church rejects sanctification, deification or divinization? No. So, sit back, relax, and ask the right questions to get to right answers.

Maximus the Confessor of the Eastern Church had problems with many Bishops of his own time in his own church. Was the whole Eastern Orthodox Church of his time actually heterodox? That’s a wrong question.

The point here is this:

If you make a sweeping judgment on someone or someones or on entire Churches, without knowing their context, then you are not judging righteous judgment. You are simply being ignorant or emotional or both. Much wrong happened in the Russian Orthodox Church during the Communist era. Can I make a sweeping judgment of the Russian Orthodox Church today? Certainly not. I cannot imagine the pressures that were on their church during that period. I can identify that mistakes were made during that period, just like I can identify that mistakes are made in my own Church, but that does not mean that I can cast a judgment on the status of a group. I can identify a wrong teaching or thought or behaviour (if I have an objective truth that I can use to judge that teaching or thought), but I cannot take it much further than that. I understand that people get hurt by these things, but the solution is to find out how to deal with it properly, not to draw up egocentric conclusions. I say egocentric because the judgment is based on the self, not necessarily on objective rightness.

Reactionism and Self-Haters

This issue is very prevalent to me. A person finds something about someone else, and they respond often in two-ways – to yell and scream and judge another person, or to hate themselves for being affiliated with a wrong person. Of course, what is this reaction based on: personal judgment.

Let me use one example to tie it together. So, as mentioned in the context of the Coptic Orthodox Church, the emphasis on teaching was not prevalent until recent times because of the situation in which the Coptic Church found herself. The Coptic Orthodox Church also only recently moved to the west (compared to other Orthodox Churches). As a result, we do not have many English books available to people that are at a very high calibre. Meanwhile, they will go to an Orthodox bookstore and find numerous books about Athonite monks, Russian staretz, and various kinds of elders. They will find liturgical masterpieces by Schmemman, eloquent podcasts and books by Father Tom Hopko (memory eternal!). They will find all sorts of literature and resources.

Two reactions can happen:
a) That’s not ours! Don’t touch it! An assumption that because it’s not “ours” it must be bad, is a wrong assumption. Yet it happens.
b) “Look at how poor we are because we don’t have those things! Obviously we are poor and we are not as spiritual because we do not have those!” This is also a false assumption. Just because there are not many English books available from our tradition, does that mean that there are no good elders in Egypt, or does it mean that not much has been translated? What is the context of Egypt? Do we record our elders’ traditions in the same way that appears to be a tradition in the Eastern Orthodox Church? If we do not have the same tradition, does it mean we lack such piety or publications just because I have not personally been able to access it? In order for this reaction to be true, those questions need to be answered first, and answered in a particular way.

So, what defined whether something was bad or good? Who defined whether or not we are heterodox or not based on the books we do or do not have? Are quantity and quality of books suddenly the measurement of Orthodoxy? Where did we get this measurement from? Who decided the standard?

I have met priests from both “sides” who are extremely antagonising on both of these views. I’ve met or heard of many Eastern Orthodox priests who speak about the Copts with disdain for not having as much literature and use it as a sign of our ‘poverty’ and a sign that God forsook us and a sign that we are “incomplete”. Is that an objective measure? Is that actually what decides one’s Orthodoxy?

So let’s say someone does something you consider “messed up” in your Church, what is the proper reaction? Follow the train of thought for a moment. Let’s say a parish starts doing praise music during Communion. This may or may not be wrong. So you need to, before reacting, go through the following set of questions:
a) Is it wrong?
b) On what basis have I evaluated the rightness or wrongness (aka “how do I know?”) – objectivity or myself?
c) Does this make the whole parish heterodox, or is this a parish that has a problem with this particular thing?
d) How do I decide that?
e) What do I do?

Many people jump from a) and go straight to e) and don’t even know how to do e)! So they just react. This is not always healthy. Usually it’s divisive.

Sensationalism and Folklore

Dramatic events happen. A Copt goes rogue and goes Byzantine. A Byzantine goes rogue and joins the Copts. It happens, and people get really worked up. They get worked up, once again, without context.

I’ll use real examples. A priest in the Coptic Orthodox Church had a really rough time with the Copts. He’s in Europe today. He joined the Byzantines and railed against the Copts. He’s a hurt man. People hear him rant, and they think, “oh wow! a priest joined? Then those Copts must actually really be heterodox!” I could then look at the famous Abouna Lazarus the hermit in Egypt, the former atheist and philosopher who was trained in both Serbia and Mount Athos and is today a Copt. If I don’t know his context, could I assume that his joining means that he’s anti-Chalcedonian? I could if I want to simply be right and declare myself right. Objectively though, am I right? Not necessarily. One would need to find out the reason and the context and then measure that against Orthodoxy.

Father John Mack was a prominent Eastern Orthodox priest who wrote some great books and also had a great marriage series that was used at my parish for young couples intending to marry. Today he’s gone Roman Catholic. Does that mean the Easterners are heterodox and we should all join Rome? You get the point. Sensationalism happens and we often take big events and make them mean things that they never truly meant, and they evolve into folklore.

A monk told a group of Copts visiting an Eastern Orthodox monastery that he was told or had a possible perception that the Copts are persecuted because God was punishing them for not being “Orthodox”. Someone taught that monk his mentality. I see the story everywhere about the alleged miracle that happened during the Council of Chalcedon in which the Tome of Leo was put into the hand of the statue of St. Euphemia, the patroness saint of the Church, and the “Tome of Dioscorus” was put in her other hand. In the morning they found the Tome of Dioscorus under her feet. This is a legend. But, contrary to this story’s claim, Dioscorus of Alexandria never composed a Tome. He did not write one, nor was such a thing ever mentioned by his contemporaries, nor was it mentioned in the minutes of Chalcedon, nor was the faith of Dioscorus even held up for scrutiny in any way at that Council. Yet when it’s said today, it affects people, and it is said with conviction.

We Oriental Orthodox have the same! I have read accounts and heard sermons that Abba Dioscorus was prevented from going to the council and then he was excommunicated for his contempt in not showing up. No, he very clearly refused to attend the session. He was not prevented from attending. Yet, we must ask again: is this what makes a person Orthodox or not? Was it an action or was it a belief?

Let’s restate the issue
The issue is simple – we are often totally arbitrary in our definitions of Orthodoxy. It tends to be defined by whatever group wants to call itself. The people of any position hold themselves to be Orthodox because they believe that they are right. So their definition of Orthodoxy is typically self-proclaimed. This is what leads to monumental problems.

Add to the lack of definition the lack of context, the emotionalism, the sensationalism, and the lack of lines between something being a problem or a state of being, and the dialogue will go nowhere. It’s doomed if we take that approach.

Closing thoughts
I know some people may be upset that I am writing like this, and they may say, but what about the truth? I’m not saying forsake truth. Never do this. I’m not saying that love should blind us to realities. That would be foolish. Love is not real if it’s not rooted in Truth. I’m not saying that we should pretend that nothing happened. I’m not saying that nothing happened. Those are all things that I am not saying.

I am saying, though, that taking the approach of looking for evil and desiring to make a point, has not been successful. I’m saying evaluations based on self-proclaimed truth have not been effective. It makes us approach dialogue without wanting to dialogue. Instead of dialoguing, we are going to one another to say, “Did you know that you are wrong? Do you know what your people did to us? Do you know that you’re not really the ‘Church’? Did you know that you have a priest who did/said this? You guys have a problem with [insert problem], so obviously you’re not Orthodox!” Instead of looking for peace, we are starting a war. Instead of saying, “you’re not Orthodox”, why not ask, “What is Orthodoxy?” How do I determine someone’s Orthodoxy if I don’t even know what it is? Instead of saying, “Your people did this!” say, “What triggered this to happen?” Instead of saying, “This is wrong!” Why not ask “What are you doing and where does it come from?” Then ask, “Is it wrong? How do we know?” Arrive at the truth together. If it happens that we have different beliefs, then we need to confront that reality.

I have met people who are hostile to the idea of unity or dialogue from both families. I have met people uncomfortable in their own homes on both sides. On my side, I have found that in spite of ourselves, we are one. My own experience, has become largely positive. The seeking of truth and the approach of sincerity with our brethren has not disappointed me, no matter what negativity, obstacles or viewpoints that I encountered. I am happy that dialogue continues to occur, but I also hope that whenever we have hiccoughs, that we do not all up and run away. We are being exposed to one another in our glories and in our shame, and this is not an easy thing for anyone. It will take a long time for us to be comfortable around one another. Each of us has his own problems at home. Each of us has his own context. Each of us has different family issues than the other. One family may lack education but have piety, another may lack piety and be scholars. One family may have elaborate and beautiful buildings pleasing to God but lack discernment while another has no iconography but has the virtue of discernment. I’m not just talking about Eastern vs Oriental, I’m talking about within each family and within each diocese of each family! The sooner that we realise that weakness will exist within each of us alone, the sooner we will realise our need for one another because we will be humble and see that our perfection can only come from oneness in Him. No one family is going to be whole unless the whole family is reunited. We must seek unity. We must deny ourselves and our egos and our stances and seek Truth together. Let us, like those two Syrian hierarchs in the photo, die with and for one another. If we believe really in our God-man, the Incarnate Logos, then we must obey Him and conform to His will, and His will was that we be One:

“I do not pray for these only, but also for those who believe in me through their word, that they may all be one; even as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that thou hast sent me.” (John 17:20-21)

Our unity is what will make manifest to the world His Oneness and His realness.

2 thoughts on “Theosis and other problems: On Orthodox dis[unity] – Part 3”

  1. Dear father,
    Thank you for this beautiful series. I learned a great deal from it.
    Could you please touch on the meaning of “monophysite”, what causes this understanding about the Copts and who are the two Syrian hierarchs in the photo?

  2. +

    Dear NE,

    Monophysite is used in two ways – sometimes in a derogative manner, and sometimes not. Strictly speaking, it literally refers to people who believe that Christ had only one nature. That He had *either* a human nature or a divine one, but not both. This is the literal meaning for it. This is viewed as heretical by virtually all Christians, but is often the term used for us by the Eastern Orthodox, and until recently, the Roman Catholics. There have been those who used it because it was their official name for us, and didn’t necessarily mean it in a denegrative (if that’s a word) way. They meant it as a fact, since they thought that we as Oriental Orthodox only believe that God was divine and not really human fully.

    We are Miaphysite. This is the way that St. Cyril expressed the union in one of his famous letters, and it more properly capture what we are saying. We are saying He is One in the sense that two married people have become one. There’s a unity oneness, and there’s a singular oneness. We are speaking of Oneness in the sense of unity. I wish I could understand why they think this way of us, because none of our Christology expresses it, neither does our Liturgy. A discussion on Chalcedon may warrant its own series, but I’m not sure if I intend to go in that direction at all.

    The two in the picture are two primates who were kidnapped together, and are assumed to possibly have been martyred by now by ISIS. One is Syrian Orthodox (Oriental), the other is Antiochian Orthodox (Eastern). The two were actually going together to go serve! I used their images to show how to people from two different families were united in the bonds of love to serve one another, to serve both communities (which they were treating as one), and possibly have even died together. If they’ve been martyred, then I hope they intercede with more fervour on our behalf for our unity. If they are alive, I pray for their recovery.

    Pray for me, too.

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