Soli deo gloria
Posted: Thursday, March 3, 2011 4:30 pm
The Messenger, March 3, 2011
The Council of Chalcedon,
By RICHARD SMITH
Special to The Messenger
The sub-topic within Christian theology known as Christology is a big one. Theologians have written volumes dealing with the subject of the “divine and human” nature of Christ. But from the simple faith of a new believer up through a scholar who has made Christology the work of an academic lifetime, the central question is about the identity of Jesus.
Who is Jesus? It’s good to stop and wonder about this from time to time, which explains why Christmas carols and songs about the cross so often come to rest on this single question. From hymns like “What Child Is This?” to “What Wondrous Love Is This,” our faith asks about the identity of Jesus.
The Council of Chalcedon (451 A.D.) can be understood only in the light of a series of Christological declarations beginning with the Council of Nicaea (325 A.D.). The Nicene Creed declared that Christ is of the same divine substance with the Father. This countered the claims of Arius, who taught that Christ had a beginning and was only of similar substance.
The Council of Constantinople (381 A.D.) both ratified and refined the Nicene Creed, in opposition to continuing Arianism, and also declared the church’s stance against Apollinarianism, which stated that Christ’s human soul had been replaced by the divine Logos. Moreover, Constantinople declared that the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son. (For previous articles about these councils go to http://graceunioncity.com/resources/gcc-in-the-news).
In order to understand what took place at the Council of Chalcedon in 451, it is necessary to go back in time for a moment and understand what happened prior to that at the Council of Ephesus in 431 A.D. This was a breakthrough moment in the history of Christian thought, when Christians seemingly reached a new level of clarity about the identity of Christ.
Here is a brief view of the summary of the various teachings being expounded concerning the person of Christ:
• Nestorianism: Divinity and humanity = 2 people
• Eutychianism: Divinity and humanity = 1 nature
• Biblical view: Divinity and humanity = 2 natures in one person
It was the heresy of Nestorianism which provoked the third Council of Ephesus. The name goes back to Nestorius, a patriarch of Constantinople in the early fifth century who was deposed at the Council of Ephesus in 431 and exiled to Egypt in 436. Cyril of Alexandria was the key theologian at this council and the guiding spirit of the next two councils as well.
Nestorianism is the type of Christological heresy which declares a strict distinction between the divinity and humanity of Christ. Nestorius, Bishop of Constantinople, had preached that Jesus was not one being comprising the human and the divine, but rather two beings — one human, one divine — that shared the same body. Such belief was found to be contrary to Christian dogma, a statement echoed and reinforced by the Council of Ephesus. Furthermore, the Council of Ephesus, which was held under Saint Cyril, Pope of Alexandria, affirmed that the Virgin Mary is the Theotokos, the “God-Bearer,” or “Mother of God.”
In addition, the Council reaffirmed the Nicene Creed.
Nestorius and his followers had reservations about these titles given Mary. They said that Mary only bore the human part of Jesus, and that the divine was imparted by Heaven after the birth. Calling Mary “Theotokos” was to believe that both human and divine were born in one being, which is the belief of much of Christianity still today. Such questions over small aspects of belief may seem academic to those of us living in the modern world, but it is these very arguments that created what modern Christians take for granted.
The Council of Ephesus condemned and excommunicated Nestorius and labeled the belief as heretical. But, as happens so many times when one extreme is proven wrong in light of Biblical truth, there are those that would again commit heresy by taking the issue at hand to different extreme.
Now a new problem arose that was the opposite belief: that Jesus Christ was a single being in which human and divine were united, but that the human was subsumed and absorbed by the divine, instead of being in equal parts. This belief was labeled the Monophysitic Error (Mone Physis; one nature). This error — whose chief proponent was a Byzantine monk named Eutyches — became known as Eutychianism.
Once again, Biblical truth and accuracy were threatened.
Next week: Chalcedon Gets It Right
Editor’s note: Richard Smith lives in Union City and is a member of Grace Community Church (Presbyterian Church in America) in Troy.