Rooted - Question of the Week #4 - Chalcedon

Today, we pick up our Rooted series, which – given my inconsistent posting tendencies – should probably be renamed, “Question of the Month.” During the past few class sessions, we’ve discussed the heart, foundation, cornerstone and (insert your preferred image here) of the Christian faith; the person of Jesus Christ.

I began our discussion by noting that Jesus is the Son of God. And this means he is God the Son. Jesus Christ is more than the ultimate, unparalleled Davidic King. He’s more than God’s perfect representative. He’s not just God’s, “right hand man.” He shares in the divine identity, and he always has (see John 1:1-3). Christians confess that Jesus Christ is God’s final and complete “Word.” God speaks and acts through Jesus. The eternal Son shares his Father’s nature (John 1:1, 18). As John says, “the Word was with God and…was God.” Thus, Jesus is uniquely qualified to image God to us; to “draw out God’s meaning” (1:18). How does he do this? By taking on our humanity. The “Word became flesh,” John says, and “moved into our neighborhood” (Jn 1:14; Eugene Peterson’s paraphrase). The Son of God added a human nature to himself, and was born of a virgin. Thus, the Son of God is also the Son of Mary. The person of Christ possesses deity (in union with his Father) and humanity (in union with us).

Now, if you reflect on the incarnation for more than 10 seconds, you’ll start asking questions; questions like, “How can Jesus be divine and human?” “What’s a person?” “What’s a nature?” “Are there two people inside Jesus?” “What is a divine nature?” “What’s a human nature?” "How does Jesus humanity relate to his deity?" The early church grappled with such questions, and tried to answer some of them (not least, the most pressing ones) in 451 AD at the Council of Chalcedon. And this brings us (at last!) to our question of the week: “what happened at this council?”

Periodically, the leaders of the early church held councils to address matters of great theological importance. Such councils were usually convened in response to pressing challenges of the day. Thus, these gatherings weren’t concerned primarily with speculative theological questions. Nor were they attended by ivory tower academicians. Pastors and political leaders called these conferences to examine teachings which were profoundly impacting churches, cultures, and countries. 

At the Council of Nicea (325 AD), many of the church’s leaders formally agreed that Jesus was indeed God the Son (a belief ably defended by the absurdly young, brilliant and godly pastor Athanasius). Consequently, they rejected the notion that Jesus was God’s created son, a teaching promulgated by the Alexandrian churchman Arius. Nicea represented a crucial victory for Athanasius and his ilk (and, I might add, for Biblical Christianity). But debates involving Jesus’ identity still abounded. Arianism remained popular, and wasn’t decisively stamped out until 381, at the Council of Constantinople. Moreover, Athanasius’ theological allies disagreed about the nature of the incarnation. What did it mean for God the Son to “become” a human being? If you asked various church leaders in the 4th century, you’d get different answers.

Apollinarius (315-392) believed that Jesus took on a human body, but not a “rational human soul.” In this respect, Jesus’ humanity was dissimilar to ours. This teaching laid some of the theological groundwork for a position known as monophysitism (which means “one nature”), which was defended by Eutyches (378-454). This monastic leader (or, at least, his followers) believed that Christ’s human and divine natures were conjoined in such a way as to create a hybrid; a new nature. As Stephen Nichols says, this is a complicated, theological way of saying, “yellow and blue makes green.” (For Us and For Our Salvation, 106). Christ's divine and human natures combined in the incarnation to make one substance, or nature. This, or course, entailed that Christ was a humanish/divinish kind of thing; a sort of freakish “missing link” between God and humanity in the chain of being. But it also entailed the he was not truly God and truly man, as Scripture attests.

Nestorius (381-451) sat at the other end of the incarnational belief spectrum. In contrast to Eutyches, this bishop from Constantinople highlighted the distinction between Christ’s human and divine natures. He laid such stress on this concept, however, that he undermined the unity of Christ’s person. It seemed to some early church leaders (viz. Cyril of Alexandria) that Nestorius was speaking about two “Jesi.” His view entailed an invasion from God the body snatcher. It was as if God the Son had taken up residence in the body of a particular Galilean dude named "Jesus." Subsequently this dude suffered from a case of cosmic schizophrenia. At times, God the Son acted through Jesus. But at other times, Jesus the Galilean dude was operative. There’s evidence that Nestorius did not in fact hold this position (and he confessed that Jesus was “one person” before his death). However, the purported implications of this view troubled a number of high-ranking church officials.   

In the mid 5th century, 520 bishops gathered at Chalcedon to address Eutychianism, which had gained traction within the church. Eutyches had powerful political allies, and his view was endorsed at an unofficial council in 449 (infamously known as the “Robber Council”). The Roman Empire faced mounting threats on its eastern borders. The emperor Marcion couldn’t afford to have a divided church in the face of impending military conflict. Thus the council was called. It provided an opportunity for church leaders to draft a statement which refuted the teaching of Eutyches. The positions of Apollinarius and Nestorius had been formally denounced at the Councils of Constantinople (381) and Ephesus (431) respectively. The meeting of Chalcedon, however, provided an opportunity for the bishops to reassert these pronouncements, and give them further articulation. The outcome of Chalcedon was nothing short of miraculous. All 520 bishops agreed to sign a statement (read it here) which affirmed that Christ was truly and fully human (against Apollinarius), having two distinct natures (against Eutyches), which belonged to one person (against Nestorius). The bishops were guided by two pivotal truths; that “God alone can save us,” and “what is not assumed is not healed.” Jesus is truly God (thus he has the power and prerogative to save). But he has truly assumed our condition, thus he can serve as our legitimate representative (he can save us).  

Chalcedon created a theological frame for understanding Jesus. This is often referred to as the Chalcedonian “box.” The Chalcedonian statement affirms that Jesus is truly God, truly man, who is two in nature, yet one in person. These four statements provide a box for understanding Jesus’ identity. They don’t “box” Jesus in. Rather, they map the conceptual space in which the biblically faithful understanding of Jesus is located. The creed doesn’t answer many of our questions about Jesus  (nor is it intended to). Rather, it helps us mark off the land in which we can safely roam.

For more information, check out Stephen Nichols helpful little book on the early creeds (I’ve adapted some of the information he provides in this post). Also, go listen to some fantastic lectures by Fred Sanders, from which I've also borrowed. They’re far more enlightening and engaging than this blog post.