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Is Western Christianity heretical?

A friendly discussion

I began:

These may be old clichés — the West emphasizes the humanity of Christ, the East His divinity — but it seems to me that:

1. Monophysitism might be a perennial theological temptation for the Orthodox (a Russian Catholic priest friend jibes that now and then the Orthodox act like they want to do away with Chalcedon... which is how he views the latest attempts at rapprochement with the Copts, et al.), and that:

2. Arianism has long dogged Western Christianity. After all, the Germanic tribes who overran the western Roman Empire were Arians. (Note to readers: I don’t mean ‘Aryan’, the Nazi misnomer for ‘Nordic’ or ‘German’, but ‘Arian’, an ancient heresy that holds Jesus is less than God.) I have heard so many Western Christians talk about ‘God and Jesus’ or ‘praying to God in Jesus’ Name’ (a distortion of Christ’s role as Mediator with the Father) or ‘God and His Son, Jesus’. Even modern(ist) Roman Catholic theology books (such as Fr Donald Senior in Jesus: A Gospel Portrait) fall into this, hesitating to affirm the divinity of Christ and saying, ‘Well, He was man and more than man’. So was Hercules in Greek myth. That isn’t Orthodox. I know Western Catholicism does affirm the divinity of Christ but this tendency is there among Roman Catholics, which is frightening. They ought to know better. And of course among evangelical Protestants I believe it’s really widespread. I think the average uncatechized American’s vague Protestant religiosity — and here I include some of the ‘born agains’ — regards Jesus as a demigod.

I’m not saying whether Copts, Ethiopians and Armenians are Monophysites — that’s beyond my knowledge. I’d like to think the break between us and, for example, the Copts, who are manifestly holy (their present-day monks, part of a strong movement, sound just like the ancient Desert Fathers) and really are closest to us in the Orthodox tradition liturgically as far as I know, really was all just a big misunderstanding, as many now say.


Brendan’s reply:

This is interesting.

Personally, I have always been intrigued by this difference in emphasis. It definitely is there. As Easterners, we tend to see more easily the weaknesses in the sympathetic/humanistic view that many Westerners have, but I know that many Westerners are just as off-put by our approach — which some find very cold.

One fine example of this is the way we celebrate Nativity/Christmas. There are very few Westerners, even as respectful as they may be of our traditions, who really, deep-down, can relate to a Christmas portrayed in the Orthodox way — as the ‘birth of God’, together with the tensions entailed by this that are present in the iconography and hymnography for Orthodox Nativity. The ‘humanistic’ portrayal of Christ’s birth in the West (with which we are all very familiar) strikes a deep sentimental chord in Westerners that is ‘missing’ in the Orthodox celebration of the Nativity. The critiques, if offered, are that our approach seems to forget too easily that it was really a baby boy there in the manger — and our response is that, while we don’t forget that, what we focus on is that this baby boy was unlike any other — which is why we celebrate the Nativity to begin with. Each of us feels a little uncomfortable with the other’s portrayal/celebration of this feast (perhaps the one that reflects this divinity/humanity difference in emphasis most clearly), but at the same time we agree that each of us confesses the same thing about Christ — just a different emphasis.

The critical point to keep in mind, of course, is that many Westerners are just as off-put by our Orthodox approach as many of us are by the more sentimental Western approach. I have been with Western Christians at the Divine Liturgy (Mass), and, while they can’t deny the truth of what we are singing, nevertheless they are not moved by what they see as essentially theological statements (which is, of course, what they are). The same holds true with respect to our iconography — many Ws will admit to its beauty, but will more easily relate to more humanistic religious art. To many Westerners, our approach seems to border, often, on abstraction, an obsession with theological formulations, etc. — which leaves many Ws unmoved. Western Christianity, from top-to-bottom, is, from the perspective of the average Western Christian, more sentimental and humanistic than Eastern Christianity. The fact that Western theology, heavily influenced by scholasticism, is not sentimental and humanistic is a paradox that is only explainable by the fact that, over the centuries and beginning in the Middle Ages, theology became gradually separated from the typical devotional and liturgical life of the average Western Christian — so the man in the pew retained a quite humanistic/sentimental spirituality, whilst the Western Church adopted, paradoxically, a rather dry, rationalistic approach to theology.

Personally, I don’t think that this is quasi-Arian any more than I think that the East is really quasi-Monophysite. What we really have are two different ways of relating to Christ, of experiencing Him. Westerns, in spite of being caught up at times in the humanity of Christ, never forget His divinity. And Easterns, who sometimes seem to border on forgetting the humanity of Christ, never really do. Of course, we can and will discuss this endlessly — as Orthodox we say that we emphasize what makes Christ special, what makes Him God, and as Westerns, RCs would say that they emphasize the Christ that the Son came to reveal to us, the Christ in the flesh who we will meet again. It’s simply two-sides of the same coin — we’re both right on this one.

As far as the Copts and Armenians go — they aren’t really Monophysites, in my opinion. In fact, the Armenians, in many cases, have a spirituality that is closer to the Romans than to the Orthodox, interestingly enough.

In Christ,


My reply to Brendan:

Glory to Jesus Christ.

Thanks for your reply, Brendan. I didn’t write on this thread again till now because I had nothing to add to your fine answer. Recently, though, I did get a catalog in the mail from an evangelical Protestant book and gift shop (it was really for the former resident) and found to my joy that there were copies of paintings, Western realistic style, of Mary with the infant Jesus titled things like Embracing God or Touching God. I am grateful and relieved that in American evangelicalism there are, like Jerry Falwell, orthodox Trinitarians. Christians!

I still hold, though, that the typical semi-schooled American religiosity is at least semi-Arian: ‘In the beginning there was God, and then there was Jesus, who was His Son and sort of like God, and then there was the Bible and everything was great... until “those Catholics” came along and added a bunch of stuff that’s not in the Bible (wherever it came from).’ Totally wrong and unhistorical, and pretty easy to refute (as many Protestants discover when first learning Christian history), but I think this un-history is what many Americans believe.

The Armenians may be closer to the Romans in spirituality for the same reason their bishops wear Latin mitres: medieval Crusader influence (in Jerusalem, where they and the Armenians met). Though except for the Western appearance of their churches and some of their vestments, and their lack of icons, I find they parallel the Orthodox. (Armenia, in the Caucasus Mountains between Russia and Turkey, is the world’s oldest Christian country. The Armenian Apostolic Church, headed by a patriarch called the Catholicos, has been estranged from Orthodoxy since the 5th century.)

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