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The Council of Chalcedon

We’re in a series of articles exploring the councils and creeds of the Christian church. Why? Because when it comes to faithfully and diligently working out our salvation with fear and trembling (Phil 2:12) we miss a great deal when we simply try to construct our own “real Christianity” with nothing more than a bible. To take heed from those who have gone before us is to benefit from the wealth found in the most important theological declarations of
the Christian tradition.

Today we continue the series with a look at the council of Chalcedon.

Background

Back at the First Council of Ephesus, Christians sought to better articulate the position stated by the Nicene Creed regarding the relationship between the man Jesus Christ and the eternal Son of God. However, thanks to men like Nestorious the waters remained muddied, and the definition remained vulnerable to misinterpretation. In 451 the council of Chalcedon – the fourth ecumenical council of the church – came together to finally settle the questions surrounding how to rightly think about the two natures of Christ.

The Controversy

After Nestorius, a man named Eutyches (staunchly anti-Nestorian) posited a view called Monophysitism (physis being the Greek word for nature) which held that while there were two natures before the union of the incarnation, after the incarnation there was only one. This meant that rather than a union, the divine nature and the human nature mixed together to form a new “third nature”, categorically neither divine nor human.

The Result

Over five hundred bishops, including representation from Pope Leo himself (who had written his comprehensive “Tome” on Christology), came together to draft the most significant Christological statement the church had ever seen. The first draft presented to the council generally pleased everyone, except for the language used to define the two natures of Christ. Changed were made inspired from Leo’s Tome which read “two natures are united without change, and without division, and without confusion in Christ.”

The resulting statement of faith pays respect to previous ecumenical councils and tradition, and presents orthodox Christology which is neither the Nestorian heresy (two persons in Christ) or Eutychean heresy (one nature in Christ). It reads:

Therefore, following the holy Fathers, we all with one accord teach men to acknowledge one and the same Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, at once complete in Godhead and complete in manhood, truly God and truly man, consisting also of a reasonable soul and body; of one substance [homoousios] with the Father as regards his Godhead, and at the same time of one substance with us as regards his manhood; like us in all respects, apart from sin; as regards his Godhead, begotten of the Father before all ages, but yet as regards his manhood begotten, for us men and for our salvation, of Mary the Virgin, the God-bearer; One and the same Christ, Son, Lord, Only-begotten, recognised in two natures, without confusion, without change, without division, without separation; the distinction of natures being in no way annulled by the union, but rather the characteristics of each nature being preserved and coming together to form one person and subsistence [hypostasis], not as parted or separated into two persons, but one and the same Son and Only-begotten God the Word, Lord Jesus Christ; even as the prophets from earliest times spoke of him, and our Lord Jesus Christ himself taught us, and the creed of the Fathers has handed down to us.

Why it Matters

The definition of Chalcedon defined the incarnation event as the true descending of the Second Person of the Trinity, while denying that a man was converted into God or that God was converted into a man. There was no mixing or confusion of the human and the divine; the two remained distinct in the one person. In the end, Chalcedon did not seek to define how the union took place, but it set the limit beyond which error lies. If you go outside of the Christological boundaries set by Chalcedon about the person of Jesus Christ, you’re talking about a different person. Chalcedon is also comforting, because when we think on this Christ, we’re reminded of a God who fully relates to our humanness, and yet is also the Holy, awesome Creator and Judge of the earth.

Finally, without seeing Christ through the lens of Chalcedon, one finds it difficult to see how salvation was accomplished. In the God-man Jesus Christ, we see God’s promise of reconciliation extended to us on one side, and the fulfilment of that covenant by humanity on the other side. It is only in Jesus as fully man and fully God that the price for sin could be paid and our salvation secured.

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