Coptic Metropolitan Bishoy explains how Church Unity got Lost in Translation at Chalcedon

Coptic Metropolitan Bishoy (pictured above) has been visiting Melbourne. Not the most convenient time for Westerners, in the middle of our Holy Week and Easter, but of course, they are on a different calendar.

Having arranged baby-sitting, I was able to get to his public lecture tonight at Trinity College (arranged by a loyal Sentire Cum Ecclesia reader, Selina – OK, class, say ‘hullo’ to Selina: ‘Hullo Selina!’ – who is working in an admin role at Trinity), which was entitled: “The Christological Controversy and the Council of Chalcedon: An Orthodox Perspective & recent positive developments”. Yes, I know, a daunting title, but your intrepid correspondent does not cringe in fear before such challenges (after all, the opening lecture at Luther Seminary in 1983–the very first theological lecture I ever heard–was entitled “St Athanasius and the Trinitarian Controversy”…)

He gave a non-Chalcedonian view of the events surrounding the Council of Chalcedon and its outcomes, and also pointed to the way in which the controversies are being overcome today, 1500 years later–largely through avoiding terminology in which the real meaning gets lost in translation.

The terminolgy is indeed difficult, and reminds me of the mess I got myself into when we were discussing on these pages whether Christ was a “human person”.

Usually, we Chalcedonians say that when the “Word became flesh”, the two natures, divine and human, were united in “one person”–or “one hypostasis” (there are problems here when that greek word is transferred literally into Latin, because you end up with two natures in “one substance”). The Copts, from what I could gather, emphasise that in Christ the two natures are united so as to become “one nature” (mia physis)–although Metropolitan Bishoy strongly asserted (in St Cyril’s terminology) that in this union the two natures continue to exist distinctly. He even used the Chalcedonian phrase “without separation, without division, without change, and without confusion”, although, again in St Cyril’s words, “it is not possible to distinguish between the natures except in thought alone”. I’m not personally comfortalbe with that last phrase. To a modern ear, it seems to suggest that it isn’t objectively so, it is just so in our thinking. But that is surely not what either St Cyril or Metropolitan Bishoy mean.

And so we can’t call these guys “Mono-physites”. As the Metropolitan writes, ‘monophysite’ comes from ‘moni physis’ which means ‘only nature’, whereas the Copts teach ‘one nature’, that is ‘mia physis’, without denying the two natures.

Still, I find this difficult. To use the Trinitarian analogy, we cannot say that the three Persons are united in One Divine Person, or that three Gods are united in One God. It is Three Persons in One God. So with Jesus, it isn’t two persons in one person, or two natures in one nature. It is two natures in one person. It just seems to run better using that terminology.

Nevertheless, if you avoid all the “lost in translation” stuff, you can see that we are really talking about the same thing. So the Catholic-Coptic dialogue was wise to drop all allusions to the Greek terminology and simply confess together the following statement:

“We believe that our Lord, God and Saviour Jesus Christ, the incarnate-Logos is perfect in his Divinity and perfect in his Humanity. He made his Humanity One with his Divinity without Mixture, nor Mingling, nor Change, nor Confusion. His Divinity was not separated from his Humanity even for a moment or a twinkling of an eye.

At the same time, we Anathematize [the teachings of] both Nestorius and Eutyches and their Doctrines.”

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19 Responses to Coptic Metropolitan Bishoy explains how Church Unity got Lost in Translation at Chalcedon

  1. Jeff Tan says:

    avoiding terminology in which the real meaning gets lost in translation

    — I’ve heard this noted before concerning what can become a more meaningful Protestant-Catholic dialogue. How long will it take for us to get there in that regard? (praying.. praying..)

  2. Schütz says:

    Yes, you are right. Not one of us–Catholic or Protestant–believe that we save ourselves in any way whatsoever, yet Protestants still insist that we are saying this when we refuse to adopt the terminology of “Justification by Faith alone”. One must say this of both the Romans and the Copts, they are willing to bypass (if not dispense with) cherished terminology if differences in terminology is the only thing that stands in the way of the mutual recognition of the Truth–and hence of unity.

  3. Rob says:


    (error in title and in first line of text)

  4. Rob says:

    Never mind! Lucian already told me of my mistake.

    Okay, everybody go back to ignoring me!

  5. Schütz says:

    You keep him in line, Lucian.

  6. Anonymous says:

    Is this the same Bishop Bishoy that delivered that wonderful, and wonderfully explicit, denunciation of women’s “ordination” (WO) and the “blessing” of homosexual “partnerships” to the General Synod of the Anglican Church of Australia a few years ago?

    William Tighe

  7. Lucian says:

    You keep him in line, Lucian

    Will do, Herr General! >;)

  8. Joe says:

    this is an intense documentary on the mysteries of Jesus’ Bloodline. Those of you who are into ‘The Da Vinci code’ or ‘holy blood holy grail’ will be amazed by this real-life adventure with actual holy relics found.. I was amazed.

  9. Schütz says:

    Thanks, Joe. Not quite sure of the relevance. Lucian, keep him in line will you?

    Dr William, see my latest post.

  10. Past Elder says:

    The reason Catholics refuse to accept the terminology Justification by Faith Alone is that they refuse to accept justification by faith alone.

    No more complicated than that.

    Unless one dives straight into the Roman abyss of operational covert Nominalism in which words can mean whatever one needs them to mean. Witness the worthless Joint Declaration.

  11. Jeff Tan says:

    What irony! I’d be rolling on the floor laughing if it weren’t so miserably tragic.

  12. Past Elder says:

    What’s tragic is the consistent confusion of justification and sanctification that finds new expressions of the same error from age to age in Roman theology, and the idea that this is nothing more than you say to-may-to and I say to-mah-to.

  13. Lucian says:

    There is no “JUSTification”. It’s >STRAIGHTening<. And it's as real on a spiritual level as a recovery of health is on a physical one. (Read Romans 4). The real confusion is between works of the Law and the good deeds. (see the parable of the good Samaritan, or the healing of the hunchback woman on the Sabbath, or the Corban-controversy). Or simply read 1 Corinthians 7:19; Galathians 5:6; Titus 1:13-16; 3:8, 9.

  14. Past Elder says:

    Hey Lucian!

    I’ve heard the position that “saved by faith and not works” means not works of the Law, ie salvation is not through the observance of the Mosaic Law, and really does not address good deeds generally at all.

    Is that your argument?

    With many works of the Law impossible to observe without the Temple and the priesthood, rabbinic Judaism is based on the idea that our good deeds, or works of loving-kindness, now replace and function as the former sacrifices.

    Then again, in the Law God revealed a religion of Temple, priesthood and sacrifices, not synagogues, rabbis and good deeds.

    For clarity’s sake — insofar as that is possible in a Catholic context — let it be said too that the dispute is not over doing good deeds but the role that plays.

  15. Schütz says:

    It remains a dispute over words. To get back to the original topic, the Non-Chalcedonians have reached agreement with the Chalcedonians because both sides have realised that they are saying the same thing, even though they have different ways of saying it. Both are still very attached to their way of saying things, but have had the sense to realise that the other sided is saying the same thing in a different way.

    Now, I am not suggesting that the differences between Lutherans and Catholics can be reduced simply to terminology, but I am saying that the agreement is much greater than one might have supposed based simply on the terminology used.

    For instance, it is a well known fact that when Lutherans say we are “justified by faith alone” that phrase has a very different meaning to that which it would have in the mouth of a Catholic theologian. That is because Lutherans have
    1) defined justification as something distinct from sanctification (whereas Catholics see these two scriptural terms as refering to different aspects of the same process–thanks Lucian, you were spot on), and
    2) defined saving faith as “fiducia”, thus as including a very large dose of what we Catholics would call “caritas” or “love”, and which we Catholics insist is also necessary for salvation.

    Insisting, Mad Hatter style, that a word means what I make it mean, will get us no-where in this discussion.

    It is like arguing over whether the fruit which Adam and Eve ate was an apple or a pomegranate.

    The fact is that both Catholics and Lutherans believe that we are saved by God’s grace alone, and that this is entirely due to the merits of Christ which are received in faith. If only we could be happy to let that be an end to the argument, and allow both sides to continue to describe the process how they like.

    But no, Lutherans have to go on saying that the JDDJ was “worthless” because it didn’t anathamatise the traditional Catholic way of describing this process.

  16. Lucian says:

    I’ve heard that position.

    But I have deduced that position entirely on my own, without any exterior help … only to find out later that other people have been aware of it for some two millennia. As for what the Old Testament revealed, Christ said some very funny things about it. Things like

    Matthew 9:13
     But go ye and learn what that meaneth, I will have mercy, and not sacrifice: for I am not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.

    Matthew 12:7
     But if ye had known what this meaneth, I will have mercy, and not sacrifice, ye would not have condemned the guiltless.

    Mark 12:33
     And to love him with all the heart, and with all the understanding, and with all the soul, and with all the strength, and to love his neighbour as himself, is more than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.

    Romans 12:1
     ¶I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that ye present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable unto God, which is your reasonable service.

    Philippians 4:18
     But I have all, and abound: I am full, having received of Epaphroditus the things which were sent from you, an odour of a sweet smell, a sacrifice acceptable, wellpleasing to God.

    Hebrews 13:15
     By him therefore let us offer the sacrifice of praise to God continually, that is, the fruit of our lips giving thanks to his name. 16  But to do good and to communicate forget not: for with such sacrifices God is well pleased.

    Psalm 51:17
     The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit: a broken and a contrite heart, O God, thou wilt not despise.

    The examples could go on and on, but I prefer to cease here. The problem with the Rabbis was that they’ve come to the same interpretation of the words of Hosea 6:6  (“For I desired mercy, and not sacrifice; and the knowledge of God more than burnt offerings”) only half a century after Christianity already spread like wild-fire to the utmost edges of the then-known world (if not even later than that).

    As for the distinction between law-works and good deeds, it’s really not that hard to see:

    1 Corinthians 7:19
     Circumcision is nothing, and uncircumcision is nothing, but the keeping of the commandments of God.

    Galatians 5:6
     For in Jesus Christ neither circumcision availeth any thing, nor uncircumcision; but faith which worketh by love.

    Titus 1:13
     This witness is true. Wherefore rebuke them sharply, that they may be sound in the faith; 14  Not giving heed to Jewish fables, and commandments of men, that turn from the truth. 15  Unto the pure all things are pure: but unto them that are defiled and unbelieving is nothing pure; but even their mind and conscience is defiled. 16  They profess that they know God; but in works they deny him, being abominable, and disobedient, and unto every good work reprobate.

    Titus 3:8
     This is a faithful saying, and these things I will that thou affirm constantly, that they which have believed in God might be careful to maintain good works. These things are good and profitable unto men. 9  ¶But avoid foolish questions, and genealogies, and contentions, and strivings about the law; for they are unprofitable and vain.

    In the Parable of the Samaritan, we see the Priest and Levite walking besides the wounded man because of a stubbornly legalistic interpretation of the Torah (they weren’t allowed to defile themselves by touching a dead corpse). Jesus condemns them for their action, but praised the Samaritan. (“The letter kills, but the Spirit gives life” — St. Paul)

    (P.S.: I was also amazed to see that Trent and the local or Pan-Orthodox Synods that addressed Protestantism in its own time, cited some of the very same sources upon whom I myself have accidentally stumbled across myself).

    1672 – Jerusalem – Pan-Orthodox Synod

    Condemned ‘justification through faith alone’.

    “We believe a man to be not simply justified through ‘faith alone’, but through ‘faith which works through love’, that is to say, through faith and works”.

    (Whereas the Protestant notion is unscriptural [no poisonous pun intended … but it’s just not there], imposing an understanding of the word ‘faith’ which the Apostle did not know, nor agreed upon, the Orthodox are happy to simply use the Pauline expression, in which we see the Apostle’s own understanding of that word unfolding in the Apostle’s own words).

    It’s also beyond me why Protestantism interprets Abraham’s spiritual straightening before God in Romans chapter 4 as something declarational (forgetting probably that what God says and decrees also happens truly: He made the Heavens and established the foundations of the Earth through His Word alone) … whereas it doesn’t do the same for his regaining of physical health in the very same chapter, a few verses later. (Both were gained by Abraham throuhg his faith in God … but we’re supposed to think that the first one’s only >on paper< so, and not in reality also, as the second one clearly is) Protestantism likens Sarah in this respect, scoffing at the words of God that Abraham will have a son of his own loins, from Sarah’s own womb. The same Sarah that said to Abraham to have sons ‘on paper’, begotten from the servant’s womb, but born on her lap, saying (declaring) that they are hers legally.

  17. Past Elder says:

    The point in not signing the Joint Declaration was precisely that the two churches are not using different terminology to describe the same thing but more like using similar terminology to describe different things.

    I used to believe what you say when I was Catholic. There is nothing new in saying the Catholic Church does teach faith alone and grace alone. I was taught that pre-council, and that the Reformation was more our (RC) fault than the Reformers’ since the miserable state of priestly formation and popular piety we allowed in turn obscured and continue to obscure that.

    The Joint Declaration came out when I was WELS, which did not sign, finding it little more than an agreement to use the same words to mean different things.

    LCMS did not sign either. Rather than speak for LCMS, you may read them for themselves here as a summary:

    and here as a full report:

    My experience from hanging around Orthodox Judaism for twenty years gives me the impression that the whole thing would be a total non-event from that perspective, since forgiveness of sin and eternal life are already realities in the Law, and matters to which the Messiah is unrelated, so agreement or the lack thereof on things which already exist and the Messiah does not bring does not address the real error.

  18. L P Cruz says:


    I will believe there is common agreement when both denoms sign the JDDI, Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Indulgence.

    The Lutherans who signed thought that Justification was the issue and that was that, but they forgot their forefather’s wisdom, you can not discuss justification without its relation to practice.

    Your infamous friend,

  19. Schütz says:

    Hmm, yes, that would be an interesting document. I’d like to read it. Personally, I think it is possible that we could in fact reach some agreement on indulgences, believe it or not. However, thus far, it is a subject that has been completely ignored in ecumenical dialogue. It was ignored in the JDDJ. Which is why so many Lutherans went “Hey, WHAT?” when the Penitentiary released a new list of indulgences for the Jubilee Year in 2000 immediately after the JDDJ was signed.

    However, I stress: The practice of granting indulgences, when done in accordance with the gospel as the church requires, is no contradiction to the doctrine of salvation by grace alone through faith in Christ.

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