The 7 Ecumenical Councils of the Early Church, And How They Shaped Modern Christianity – Part 4: The Council of Chalcedon
The Council of Chalcedon was called in 451 CE by the Roman Emperor Marcian (r. 450-457) to settle debates regarding the nature (hypostases, “reality”) of Christ that had begun at two earlier meetings in Ephesus (431 CE and 439 CE). The question was whether Christ was human or divine, a man who became God (through the resurrection and ascension) or God who became a man (through the incarnation, “taking on flesh”), and how his humanity and divinity affected his essence and being, if at all.
The Choices at Ephesus
Emperor Theodosius II (r. 402-450 CE) called the Council of Ephesus in 431 CE to settle all of these matters. First and foremost, all Jewish-Christian views were condemned as heresy. Secondly, the remaining views and communities of Gnostic Christians, who taught that Christ did not become human, he only appeared (docetism) as human so that his humanity was denied, were condemned.
The Roman delegates held to their claim that two substances were joined in a single person, including a rational soul (the logos), following the teachings of Plato. The delegates from Antioch preferred the tradition of the gospels of a more human Jesus. Jesus’ humanity meant that he could be more sympathetic to the struggles of humans. Divine elements were present in the human Jesus, but full divinity occurred only at his resurrection and exaltation.
The remaining Arians in Alexandria, who taught that Christ was subordinate to God, claimed that if the “word” (logos) can combine with flesh, it receives sense impressions. Therefore, it is mutable (changing), not identical to God. The union between the divine and the human in Jesus was true communication. In Christ, the word/spirit and the body and soul are thus joined to the divine and cannot be acted on or changed, but this was a union without forming a new nature.
Throughout the proceedings, bishops argued over the extent of Jesus’ humanity. Bishop Clement of Alexandria had earlier claimed that Jesus lacked human passions. Rather, the line in the Gospel of John that “Jesus wept” (11:35) was an allegorical symbol of the loss of God’s plan for humans. Others taught that Jesus’ body was different, purer than all other humans. As an original soul before creation, the soul of Jesus was different than human souls. They even debated if Jesus physically ate (an allegory or metaphor?) or performed other human functions (such as defecation).
All these theologians agreed on the union of divinity and human but disagreed on the physics of how it was achieved. In relation to salvation, Athanasius of Alexandria (d. 373 CE) claimed that it was not to give God an opportunity to participate in human life but so that humans could participate in the divine life, for man to become God.
Council of Chalcedon (451 CE)
After the death of Theodosius II, those discontented with the councils of Ephesus still objected and argued different views. In 451 CE, Emperor Marcian called for the Council of Chalcedon (near Constantinople). The purpose was to finally settle the issue of the two natures of Christ and how to word the doctrine of Incarnation. It was attended by 520 bishops and their entourages and was the largest and best-documented of all the councils. Marcian wished to bring proceedings to a speedy end and asked the council to make a pronouncement on the doctrine of the Incarnation. It was decided that no new creed was necessary.
The Council issued what was called the Chalcedonian Definition or the Chalcedonian Confession:
Following then, the holy Fathers, we all with one voice teach that it should be confessed that our Lord Jesus Christ is one and the same God, the Same perfect in Godhead, the Same perfect in manhood, truly God and truly man, the Same (consisting) of a rational soul and a body; homoousios with the Father as to his Godhead, and the Same homoousios with us as to his manhood; in all things like unto us, sin only excepted, begotten of the Father before the ages as to his Godhead, and in the last days, the Same, for us and for our salvation, of Mary the Virgin Theotokos, as to his manhood. One and the same Christ, Son, Lord, Only-begotten, made known in two natures [which exist] without confusion, without change, without division, without separation; the difference of the natures having been in no wise taken away by reason of the union, but rather the properties of each being preserved, and [both] concurring into one Person and one hypostasis (essence)—not parted or divided into two persons, but one and the same Son and Only-begotten, the divine Logos, the Lord Jesus Christ; even as the prophets from of old [have spoken] concerning him, and as the Lord Jesus Christ himself has taught us, and as the Symbol of the Fathers has delivered to us. (quoted in Herring, 324)
The conclusion was reached that the two natures of Christ remained distinct in the union; neither nature was diminished in any way through their joining. The Council also issued 27 disciplinary canons governing church administration and hierarchy (to stem the lifestyles and corruption of the clergy). Canon 28 declared that the See of Constantinople had a patriarchal status with equal privileges to the See of Rome.
The immediate result of the Council created more schisms. Some bishops claimed that the declaration of two natures was equivalent to Nestorianism. The Alexandrian churches did concede two natures from the beginning, but they emphasized the divine nature as dominant. The Alexandrians were now labeled as monophysites (“one nature”) and thus heretics. This was technically not their position, but they broke from both Constantinople and Rome and created the independent Coptic Christian Church of Egypt with their own Pope. They suffered persecution and executions until the time of the Islamic Conquest, which granted them status as “people of the Book,” Jews and Christians.
In the East, the Nestorian survivors carried his teachings into Persia and other regions of the Byzantine Empire and beyond. Nestorian communities existed along the Silk Road into China and India. Periodically vestiges of heretical teachings arose, and so there were continual rounds of excommunications and denouncements from Constantinople. The existence of these divergent communities as well as other issues ultimately contributed to the separate creation of Eastern Orthodox Christianity. The two main Churches separated in 1054, into Latin Christianity (the Catholic Church) and Orthodox Christianity.
Many modern Christians have difficulty understanding some of the more esoteric details of these debates and why such arguments led to condemnation and executions, but in the historical context of the ways in which Christianity was transforming the late Roman Empire, the stakes were high; differences in interpretation jeopardized the very concept of salvation for Christians.