The Council of Chalcedon 451

Dr Halliburton outlines how it came to its famous Definition

The Council which met at Chalcedon on 8th October, 451 had been summoned in some haste by the Emperor Marcian to address strong protests from many quarters against the judgements of the council that had met at Ephesus two years earlier. The troubles went back to the year 428 when an academic and articulate archbishop, Nestorius, had been appointed to the see of Constantinople and had declared in his Christmas sermons that the title Theotokos was inappropriately applied to the Blessed Virgin Mary. Mary was certainly the source of Christ’s humanity but she could scarcely be described as the ‘God-bearer’.

‘I find it very difficult,’ he is alleged to have said, ‘to worship God three weeks old in a manger’. This in turn aroused some deep-rooted suspicions, going back to Paul of Samosata and beyond, that Jesus was in fact the adopted Son of God in whom the Word of the Father, the divine Logos, dwelt as in no other. Hence the accusation that Nestorius believed in ‘two sons’ and failed to account for their unity.

For all his eloquence and skill at the court of Byzantium, Nestorius received very short shrift and history has shown that his treatment was less than just. Much has been made of the rivalry between the see of Alexandria and what was looked upon by many as the upstart see of Constantinople which claimed to be the ‘New Rome’. Nonetheless, there were serious issues of truth at stake.

The manner in which Nestorius’ teaching was put on trial at the first Council of Ephesus in 431 is certainly less than edifying. In addition, since councils summoned by emperors had for more than a century been policed with imperial officials, and since the deposition of a bishop from his see was by imperial command, those who scored theological points were able to order penalties on their opponents which either temporarily or permanently removed them from the scene of battle.

Cyril of Alexandria’s presidency at the Council of Ephesus 431 reveals him to be devious, opportunist and at times downright unjust. He may have succeeded in getting Nestorius’ pronouncements condemned; but the real theological reconciliation among those who wrestled at the council was to take a few more years, and Cyril and his party were to be by no means the sole victors.

The Antiochenes

Nestorius, both at the Council and during its aftermath, had many supporters. He was after all, in his own judgement, simply reflecting the school of theology in which he had been educated. Students at Antioch learned their theology in the shadow of distinguished figures such as Diodore of Tarsus and Theodore of Mopsuestia, and their oratory at the feet of Libanius who had been such an inspiration to John Chrysostom.

Their teaching on the Person of Christ has been characterized in modern times (for example by Alois Grillmeier) as ‘Word-Man’ christology, as compared with the ‘Word-Flesh’ christology of the school of Alexandria. The Antiochenes in general were anxious to state that when the Word of God united himself to our human nature, that human nature was left intact in every way. There was good reason for this. For there had been those in living memory who had suggested that if Jesus were to rescue the human nature in which he was clothed, then he could not be saddled with all its fallibility.

Hence the teaching of Apollinarius that the Word of God replaced the human mind, and put the rest of human nature into a straitjacket so that it might perfectly obey the will of God. This the Antiochenes resolutely rejected, because, as they rightly affirmed, if Jesus is not consubstantial with us in every respect, then he cannot know what it is to be human and therefore cannot rescue us from our own fallibility. His victory over sin and death is far from being a tour de force, but is rather a lifelong struggle of obedience and faithfulness. There was much in the Scriptures to support this view. Jesus ‘grew in wisdom and stature’, records St Luke, which in some ways supports Nestorius’ claim that the child in the manger is a long way from being a full revelation of God.

Jesus ‘learned obedience through the things which he suffered’, writes the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews. What we see in Jesus is the schooling of our humanity through the close relationship of the Son with the Father, not the control of human nature by a supernatural being or supernatural force. In the end we cannot see the fullness of God’s revelation of himself in Christ until the moment of final surrender on Calvary and the experience of total victory in the garden of the Resurrection.

Unity of the Person

It was the theology of Antioch, represented by John of Antioch and Theodoret of Cyr which upheld a great deal of what other approaches might have rejected in their anxiety to condemn Nestorius. The full story of this will have already been told in the article on the Council of Ephesus 431. Cyril himself could be both balanced and unreasonable, and it is to his credit that he was able to write in such irenic terms his second letter to Nestorius. Here he states that at the Incarnation the Word of God limited himself personally to our human nature within the womb of the Virgin Mary without impairing either the divine nature of the Word nor the completeness of our human nature.

‘For it was not an ordinary man who was first born of the Holy Virgin, and upon whom afterwards the Word descended; but Himself, united to humanity from the womb itself, is said to have undergone fleshly birth, as making his own the birth of his own flesh.’ [Cyril, Second Letter to Nestorius]. It is to his credit also that he did not fight to the end to defend his confrontational Twelve Anathemas, and that in his correspondence with John of Antioch quietly accepted the merits of the Formulary of Reunion.

Cyril died in 444 and was succeeded by Dioscorus. Challenges to the peace that had been secured by Cyril and John of Antioch had been rumbling around the Mediterranean for some time. Not unexpectedly for some of the Alexandrian persuasion, the dangers of Nestorianism were still very much alive. It needed to be reasserted, as St Athanasius had maintained, that the Word had taken our human nature directly from the womb of the Virgin Mary. He did not annex to himself a separate human being (which would have led to the doctrine of Two Sons), but his humanity was formed for him personally by the union of the Godhead with the Blessed Virgin.

There is therefore only one Son; in Jesus there is only one centre of consciousness; in him there is only one will, totally united by the intimate and personal relationship between God and Mary in the act of begetting by the Holy Spirit. Some confusion was experienced at the time over what was meant by nature (phusis) and what was meant by person (hypostasis). Those who spoke quite naturally of the ‘two natures in Christ’, meaning that Christ was perfect God and perfect man, were accused of teaching the doctrine of two sons; those who spoke of the ‘one nature’ in Christ, meaning ‘one person’ were accused of confusing the human and the divine and of making the incarnate Christ into a hybrid.

The council agenda

The Council of Chalcedon’s agenda, when called in the early summer of 451, was to address the claims to orthodoxy of a Byzantine archimandrite, Eutyches, whose belief put summarily was that in the incarnate Christ there had been two natures, human and divine, before the union, but only one thereafter, the humanity being virtually swallowed up by the divinity.

He had the ear of Byzantine politicians, he was godfather to Chrysaphius the eunuch, who in turn was confidant to the emperor, Theodosius II. He had done battle with Flavian, archbishop of Constantinople at the time, and had succeeded, with the emperor’s consent and connivance, in having a council called at Ephesus in 449, at which Dioscorus took the chair.

The Council vindicated his teaching and condemned that of Flavian and, by implication, all the irenic position achieved by Cyril and John of Antioch some fifteen years before. After his deposition, Flavian, the lawful occupant of the see of Constantinople, walked unsuspectingly one dark night into a band of marauding monks, headed by Barsumas, was severely beaten and subsequently died of his injuries.

From Antioch to Rome, the Christian world of the Mediterranean was deeply shaken. A council, called by an emperor and chaired by a senior bishop, had all the outward claims to be considered ecumenical and therefore binding on the whole Church. Its findings, however, went quite contrary to what the greater part of Christendom believed to be true.

There was no formal reception of its proceedings and the second council of Ephesus, therefore, passed into history under the title of the ‘Latrocinium’ or ‘Robber Council’. Providentially, not long afterwards, Theodosius was thrown from his horse and killed; his sister Pulcheria, who for a long time had served the course of orthodoxy both in her person and in the conduct of the royal household, assumed the Empire, married as her consort the ageing Marcian, and immediately summoned a new council to meet on the opposite side of the straits from Byzantium, in a town known then as Chalcedon.

The Definition

Throughout, she had been very much in touch with the bishop of Rome, Leo the Great, whose correspondence reveals how concerned he was to see peace restored at Constantinople and truth about the Incarnation acknowledged in the whole Church. Leo, if anything, came in on the side of the school of Antioch, determined to see both the fullness of the divine and the completeness of the human in the one person, Jesus Christ. For Leo each nature, human and divine, retains its own properties, but they come together in one person, ‘humility is embraced by majesty, weakness by strength, mortality by eternity’, and the result is the one mediator between God and man, the man Christ Jesus.

The Chalcedonian Definition of the Faith clearly reflects the battles and controversies which over the years had led to the calling of the Council. Having stated which are the documents in which the orthodox faith is most satisfactorily expressed – the Creed of the 318 fathers of Nicea and that of the 150 fathers at Constantinople, to which are added the synodical epistles of Cyril of Alexandria and the Letter of Leo to Flavian – the summary Declaration begins with a series of anathemas, ruling out the doctrine of two sons, the passibility of the Godhead, the confusion or mixture of the two natures in Christ, the pre-existence of his humanity before the Incarnation, and the Eutychian doctrine of two natures before the union and one afterwards.

Then comes the extraordinarily brief but precise positive definition:

Following then the holy Fathers, we all unanimously teach that our Lord Jesus Christ is to us One and the same Son, the self-same Perfect in Godhead, the self-same Perfect in Manhood; truly God and truly Man; the self-same of a rational soul and body; consubstantial with the Father according to the Godhead, the self-same consubstantial with us according to the Manhood; like us in all things, sin apart; before the ages begotten of the Father as to the Godhead, but in the last days, the self-same, for us and for our salvation, born of Mary the Virgin, Theotokos as to the Manhood; acknowledged in Two Natures, unconfusedly, unchangeably, indivisibly, inseparably; the difference of the Natures being in no way removed because of the Union, but rather the property of each nature being preserved and both concurring into One Prosopon and One Hypostasis … one and the self-same Son and only begotten Word, Lord, Jesus Christ.

Albert Schweitzer considered the Definition to be a prison from which the real historical Jesus needed to be released. Others have accused its formulators of defining Jesus according to their soteriological needs. But in reality, the Definition speaks to the experience of Christians in the Church and at the Eucharist, confirms their hope that this human nature has a future and their trust in an involved Creator who will never abandon them.


Dr John Halliburton is Residentiary Canon and Chancellor of St Paul’s Cathedral.

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