The Christology Controversy: The Council of Chalcedon and the God-Man
Jesus showed humanity how to find life through suffering and death. Up until the Council of Nicaea, the main questions regarding Christ were of his divinity and how that nature of him lined up with that of the Father. After Nicaea these questions still loomed in the background, but the focus shifted to that of the dual nature of Jesus—divine and human—and how these two natures interacted. It was one thing to claim the Christ as divine, but it became an entirely distinct debate trying to balance Jesus’ fully divine and fully human nature. By its very definition these two realities should not exist; by being fully human, does this disqualify one from also being divine? It is within that tension that we find the dispute. There were many factors that played into the two orientations that arose from the Christian churches of this century; part was due to geographic and cultural differences, while others were influenced by surrounding religions and belief systems. Though there were many avenues of discussion regarding this debate, it was the Council of Chalcedon in 451 which attempted to solve the christological debate in a way that would embrace the leading orientation rising from the East and the West. This was truly a noble task and one which has been engraved on the hearts of subsequent christological debates. In some ways the Council of Chalcedon served as a signpost, pointing the debate in the correct direction, but in another way it failed at creating an insurmountable fence separating orthodoxy and heresy.
This paper will focus on how the christology controversy regarding the 'two natures' of Jesus the Christ developed and was disputed through an approximate 126 year of ecumenical councils. While the movement through this extensive history will be terse, the intent is to show the migration of thought and the intensity the subject of Jesus' nature had on developing christology. Consequently, this paper will have a total of three primary sections: the first, developing the Eastern orientation of thought regarding the two natures of the Christ; the second developing the Western orientation of thought regarding the two natures of Christ; and the last section will conclude with the fourth ecumenical council, Council of Chalcedon in 451, and how it served as a road sign for the subsequent developing christology. Ultimately, this council failed to deter heretical uprise, as was the case with the preceding councils.
Of the Eastern orientation, the primary force came from the Eastern Alexandrian school which focused on redemption by deification of the human life of Jesus. Jesus is the redeemer of humanity being made divine upon his death on the cross. In essence, if the human nature of Jesus is to be defined, it must be united with the divine nature. This is strongly soteriological in character. The Alexandrians argue that this was exactly what happened through the incarnation of Jesus Christ: God became human so that humanity could eventually become divine. A considerable amount of attention was devoted to the Logos assuming human nature as is found in the first chapter of John’s gospel. According to Alexandrians, to “celebrate the birth of Christ was to celebrate the coming of the Logos to the world, and its taking human nature upon itself in order to redeem it.”
Cyril of Alexandria
One of the leading writers from this school of thought was from Cyril of Alexandria. Cyril’s abstract discourse on the absoluteness and immutability of God was to deal with the mystery of the divine Logos. This stance did not account for the incarnation of the Logos into the flesh in such a way that the divine immutability was impaired. However, the unchangeable nature of the divine could not be set aside for Cyril. According to Pelikan, “Although [Jesus] was said to have suffered in the flesh, impassibility continued to be a characteristic of him insofar as he was God. He was incapable of suffering but took on a flesh that could suffer, so that the suffering of his flesh could be said to be his own.” Even though the Alexandrian recognized the sufferings of Jesus and the unity found in Jesus of being fully human and fully divine, by his divine nature he was not allowed to endanger his impassibility. The Logos existed before the union with human nature, and after the union was made there still remained only one nature: Logos unified with the human nature. This is the prominent difference between the Alexandrians and the Antiochenes, who were more receptive to the two-nature idea of the Christ. Cyril, an Alexandrian, states his stance:
In declaring that the Word was made to "be incarnate" and "made human," we do not assert that there was any change in the nature of the Word when it became flesh, or that it was transformed into an entire human being, consisting of soul and body; but we say that the Word, in an indescribable and inconceivable manner, united personally to himself flesh endowed with a rational soul, and thus became a human being and was called the Son of man. And this was not done by a mere act of will or favor, nor simply adopting a role or taking to himself a person.
Before this essay moves to the West it must be made known that Apollinaris of Laodicea had apprehension towards the increasingly widespread belief that Logos assumed human nature entirely. Apollinaris insisted the presence of the “sufferings belonging to the flesh” could not debilitate the impassibility of the divine nature. According to Apollinaris, the Logos was contaminated by the weakness of the human nature, for the human mind was the source of corruption and sin against God. This stance is born out of the perspective of Cyril of Alexandria who challenged that if through the incarnation of Jesus, did God cease being God and become something that he had not been in the beginning? Cyril would certainly disagree, for “being unchangeable by nature, [God] always remains what he was and ever is.” Cyril concluded that God could not be changed by any form of time, or shaken by an form of suffering.
As appealing as Apollinaris’ ideas seemed to some, many theologians, such as Cyril and Gregory of Nazianzus, realized that “the price for protecting Jesus’ sinlessness in this was too high.” As Gregory of Nazianzus questioned, how could the humanity of Jesus be redeemed if only part of it were assumed by the Logos:
The unassumed is the unhealed, however, that which is united to his Godhead is saved. If only half of Adam fell, then Christ assumes and saves only that half of his nature. But if his nature fell in its totality, then it must all be united to the nature of him who was begotten, and thus be saved in its totality. Let them not begrudge us our salvation in its totality, or clothe the savior with nothing more than bones and nerves and something which looks like humanity.
The totality of salvation was only possible through the totality of Jesus' humanity. The logic of Eastern christology was governed by soteriology. Christ had to be fully divine and fully human in order to embrace the title of Savior. If Christ were less than fully human he would not be able to identify with humanity, however if Christ were not fully divine he would not have the power and jurisdiction to save humanity, even if he could sympathize with it. The problem with the Eastern orientation is that they were never able to wholly define the relationship between the seemingly two natures of Christ. Propositions such as that from Apollinarius did not meet acceptance and there were many attempts to protect the sinlessness of Christ while being fixated on his divinity. This attempt gave rise to a heretical view known as Eutychianism.
This view essentially engrossed the humanity of Christ into his divine nature, thus creating only one nature after it. The emergence of this idea eventually led to the Nestorian controversy of the two natures of Christ, which will be discussed in the following section. However it is important to note Eutyches' involvement as an Alexandrian spokesperson. There was rising tension between many Alexandrians, Cyril included, because of the rising ignorance of their view of Christ's one nature. While on the other side, Antiochenes accused Cyril and other Alexandrians of heresy for not defining the two distinctive natures of Christ. It was thus Eutyches, as the Eastern archimandrite and politically influential figure, who became the spokesperson against the two natures at the Synod of Constantinople in 448. His view was that prior to the incarnation, Christ had two natures, but only one afterwards. This proved to be difficult for many to support. Many questions arose, such as: "Was Christ's humanity swallowed up by his divinity?" and "Was Eutyches in essence denying Christ's human nature?" As a result, the synod excommunicated Eutyches and considered his view as heresy. Accordingly, this decision of Christ's dual nature came down to the Council of Chalcedon.
While Alexandrians were purely stereological, Antiochenes drew much less from ideas of Greek philosophy. Most Antiochenes believed that humankind existed in a state of corruption in which they were powerless to liberate themselves from. Since humanity is unable to break from the bondage of their sinful nature, God must intervene, which lead to a redeemer who unites humanity and divinity. For the Antiochenes, the the duality of Christ's natures is vigorously defended; Christ is simultaneously the divine God and a real individual human being. Though this fell under criticism from Alexandrians that the unity of Christ was in jeopardy, Antiochenes upheld that unity by claiming the one redeemer possessed both a perfect human and a perfect divine nature. It is as if Jesus Christ were two persons in one, to ensure that human weakness was unable put his divinity in jeopardy.
Theodore of Mopsuestia is a good example of a Antiochene since he did not believe the two natures of Christ compromised Christ’s unity. In fact, Theodore seems to suggest that instead of the Christ assuming a general human flesh, the Logos assumed a concrete individual. In his work on the Incarnation he states, "In coming to indwell, the Logos united the assumed [human being] as a whole to itself, and made him to share with in all the dignity in which the one who indwells, being the Son of God by nature, possesses." Despite this, Alexandrians remained apprehensive believing that the heavy emphasis on the "two natures" of Christ led to underlying acceptance of "two sons"; Christ was in fact two persons, one human and one divine. In fact, there was a sect of Antiochenes who did in fact emphasize the two natures of Christ to this degree, ultimately alluding to the idea that Christ took on two separate entities. This view is known as Nestorianism.
By quick summary, Nestorianism is the error that Jesus the Christ is two distinct persons. This doctrine is identified by and named after Nestorius, who served as the patriarch of Constantinople. This view of Christ was eventually condemned at the Council of Ephesus in 431 and considered heresy at the Council of Chalcedon in 451; not before, however, dealing its damage on the growing formation of christology.
The motivation of viewing Christ as two distinct persons developed against the idea that God suffered and died on the cross, for it was axiomatic to most patristic writers that God was capable of suffering in the same ways human beings suffer. Those who followed after Nestorius' teachings believed Jesus to be the perfect human who suffered and died, not the divine second person of the Trinity. This can be thought as if a man went into a tent that was not his and put the clothes of another man on himself. The man is fully himself, while also be disguised or masked as another, being also fully him. It should not be mistaken that Nestorius believed the Christ was not divine. In fact, Nestorius was trying to defend Christ's divinity. Regardless, Cyril and his allies quickly deposed Nestorius and his doctrine at council of Ephesus. Cyril is found speaking out against Nestorius' doctrine in The Five Tomes of S. Cyril, or, as often titled, the Five-Book Contradictions of the Blasphemies of Nestorius:
For they accuse, as something bastard and uncomely...dividing into two several sons, the One Lord Jesus Christ, and take away from God the Word the sufferings of the Flesh, though not even we have said that He suffered in His own Nature, as God, but we attribute rather to Him along with the Flesh the Sufferings also that befel the Flesh, that He too may be confessed to be Saviour (for with His stripes were WE healed, as it is written, and He has been wounded for our transgressions, albeit not recipient of suffering any wound): and WE have been saved by His undergoing death for us through His own Body.
Nestorius' error is not that he viewed Jesus Christ as simply a human being, but rather that he divorced the humanity of Jesus from the divinity of God. He confesses to the two natures of Jesus, but could not concede the communicatio idiomatum.
Communicatio Idiomatum. Simply put, "idioma" refers to something that is inherent in nature, such as eating, drinking, crying, laughing, and dying. Suppose one heard a lesson that went something like this: "Jesus, the carpenter from the town of Nazareth, went into town to fetch himself a pail of water and buy a loaf of bread to take back home to share with his mother, and this same Jesus is the Christ the Son of the living God." Men like Nestorius would agree with this statement. However, take the same statement with a slight alteration saying instead: "There is God going into town to fetch himself a pail of water and buy a loaf of bread to take back home to share with his mother," Nestorius would reject this statement claiming that actions such as fetching water, buying bread, eating, and drinking, are "idiomata" for humans, but not for the divine. Likewise, to say something like "Jesus the carpenter was crucified by the Jews," would be fine by Nestorius, but to say that, "God was crucified by the Jews," would again be to associate "idiomata" of humans to the divine.
As a result of the communicatio idiomatum doctrine, Christ is both God and a human being in one person, therefore allowing whatever is said about him as a human being to be said about him as God; namely that if the statement "Christ has died," is believed as true, then the statement, "God has died," must also be considered as truth. God has not died in isolation, as Martin Luther would later point out in his critique of Nestorianism, but has died through his unity with humanity. It sounds strange to many that God should die, but then it should also sound strange that God might become human, for by becoming fully human he is denying the immortality of the divine in order that he might suffer and die as all humans do. Let it be said once more, God did not die in isolation, for the statements "Christ has died," and "God has died," can only be true if God has been unified with humanity. This decision is one of the pillars established at the Council of Chalcedon in 451. As mentioned before, this council served as a directional sign for progressive christology, but failed to create an insurmountable fence between heresy and orthodoxy.
Council of Chalcedon in 451
The Council of Chalcedon in 451 was brought together under the order of Emperor Marcian, with the reluctant approval of Pope Leo. Marcian adjured the council to develop a statement of faith in order to bring about unity and direction for the church, specifically on the issue of the two natures of Christ. In response, the council developed the "Chalcedonian Definition," which discredited the idea of a single nature in Christ, but affirmed the Jesus had two natures in one person. The decree confesses Jesus Christ is "one person, who is both divine and human." Though the language of the Definition has often been scrutinized, it provided the guidelines the church was seeking at the time. In the end, the Definition taught the gospel message of Jesus assuming the nature of the fallen humanity in order to save humanity. In the words of Gregory of Nazianus, "That which he [Christ] has not assumed he has not healed; but that which is united to his Godhead is also saved."
We, then, following the holy Fathers, all with one consent, teach men to confess one and the same Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, the same perfect in Godhead and also perfect in manhood; truly God and truly man, of a reasonable soul and body; consubstantial with us according to the manhood; in all things like unto us, without sin; begotten before all ages of the Father according to the Godhead, and in these latter days, for us and for our salvation, born of the virgin Mary, the mother of God, according to the manhood; one and the same Christ, Son, Lord, Only-begotten, to be acknowledged in two natures, inconfusedly, unchangeably, indivisibly, inseparably; the distinction of natures being by no means taken away by the union, but rather the property of each nature being preserved, and concurring in one Person and one Subsistence, not parted or divided into two persons, but one and the same Son, and only begotten, God the Word, the Lord Jesus Christ, as the prophets from the beginning have declared concerning him, and the Lord Jesus Christ himself taught us, and the Creed of the holy Fathers has handed down to us.
The Council of Chalcedon is significant not only because it anathematized those who believed in Christ's singularity of nature, but it also ratified the creeds of Nicaea and Constantinople, simultaneously condemning the erroneous doctrine of Nestorius and Eutyches. Though the Council of Chalcedon did not put an end to the ongoing debate concerning the two natures of Jesus and the relationship of the Trinity, the council did set a direction for what would be considered orthodoxy in the church. The hypostatic union of Jesus and the theology that came with this doctrine was beginning to take on a stunning and remarkable shape.
Theology of the Hypostatic Union
The hypostatic union of Jesus, which can simply be defined as the personal union of Jesus' two natures, is the joining of the divine nature and the human nature of Jesus into one. In the end, this term is unimportant, but the infinitely precious concept behind the term is ultimately mind-bending. There is no division in Jesus and he most certainly is not two separate entities. As the Chalcedon Definition states, Jesus' two natures are without disunion, estrangement, or alteration. Jesus is God. By the means of this hypostatic union, Jesus is able to fulfill the completion of salvation and connect with humanity in ways that an un-incarnate deity is unable. The conception of a deity who is unable to sympathize with his creation is unable to satisfy the longings of the human soul. God became man, so that men would have the opportunity to partake in God. As Jurgen Moltmann claims in his book, The Crucified God, "[God] took on transitory, mortal being, for that which is transitory and mortal to become intransitory and immortal."
The christology of the early church had to come to grips to many objections of this belief assumed in antiquity. Jesus' crucifixion is the center of all Christian theology. All Christian statements about God, all recounts of the creation, and all tellings of sin and death point toward the cross. The New Testament's profusion comes together in the experience of the crucifixion and excudes from it again. For that reason, it is futile to expatiate the incarnation of God without keeping this conclusion in view: Jesus was born to face his passion. God did not become the sought after shadow of mankind, but rather God became the outcast, accursed, and ultimately crucified Jesus. To speak of Jesus as the 'image of the invisible God,' means that this is God; this crucified, humiliated man on the cross, is God. "On the cross, God stretched out his hands to embrace the ends of the earth," said Cyril of Jerusalem. This symbolic expression expresses God's ability to sympathize in the suffering and death of the human flesh; a reminder of God's willingness to die on the cross in Jesus.
The Crucified God
Once again, borrowing language from Jurgen Moltmann, it is important to synthesize the possibility of God being able to suffer by the means of the Christ. The first point is in response to the unchangeability of God, which was rightly stated at Nicaea against Arius. However, though this statement is true to a certain degree, the absoluteness of this statement takes it too far. God cannot be passively changed by other creatures. However, this does not mean that he is incapable of changing himself, or even allowing himself to be changed by others through his own free will. Therefore, the definition of unchangeableness must be evaluated and adjusted to match God's abilities. Second, church orthodoxy preserved against the Monophysites that it was impossible for God to suffer. Since God was unable to experience pain, illness and death, he was thought to have been unable to suffer in any sense. There are other forms of suffering, however, which were not defined by the early church, such as the suffering of love in which one makes itself vulnerable of being affected by another. If God were unable to suffer in the absolute sense, he would be unable to truly love. In the words of Moltmann, "If love is the acceptance of the other without regard to one's own well-being, then it contains within itself the possibility of sharing in suffering." The one who is adept to love must also be capable of suffering.
The End of the Councils, the Continuation of Heresy
In part, the council's decision to insist upon the two natures of Christ—human and divine—while still allowing interpretations from various sides regarding their nature, only pointed to the political situation of the period. The council was obliged to adopt a realistic approach, which it ultimately did by identifying the two natures of Christ, but not how the divine nature and the human nature were pertinent to each other. The Council of Chalcedon in 451 did not mark the end to the heretical controversy that was erupting on the scene. Despite the endurance of Nestorians that was presented earlier, Jaroslav Pelikan explains that, "the principal opponents of orthodoxy in the continuing debate after Chalcedon, however, were not the remnants of Nestorianism, but the several parties of 'Monophysites.'" As explained by Leo Donald Davis, in his book, The First Seven Ecumenical Councils (325-787): Their History and Theology, groups such as the Monophysites objected to the Chalcedon for numerous reasons, one of them being that "in the Definition of Chalcedon no mention was made of the hypostatic union; nor of the phrase 'out of two' natures which would be to separate the One Christ into two persons, as did Nestorius." The Nestorians were not overtly disrupting orthodoxy, but the Monophysites concluded that the Chalcedon Definition, and ultimately and entirety of the Chalcedonian doctrine was Nestorian. The bishops at Chalcedon were unable to develop a doctrine on the two natures of Christ that would solidify orthodoxy and silence the heretics. This is all too evident in the fourth ecumentical council as it was in the previous three; these proved to be insufficient methods to extinguish or even impede heresy.
In hindsight of the four ecumenical councils, one is able to recognize a pattern that lingered throughout the 126 years that encompassed the four ecumenical councils and even beyond. The bishops of each council were merely responding to the heretical doctrines that would appear or resurface between the councils. The Council of Nicaea addressed the problems of Arianism, Constantinople dealt with Apollinarianism and Macedonians, Ephesus addressed Nestorianism, and Chalcedon dealt with the disjointedness of Eutyches. Overall, orthodoxy would too often be established with an ample amount of inconsistencies, which inevitably invited misinterpretation and the rise of heretical views. In addition, the modifications of their doctrine, as a means of countering the arguments that arose from heretical debate, highlights the volatility of what was determined as orthodoxy.
In conclusion, this paper presented a broad overview of the exercise of thought and the intensity the subject of Jesus' nature had on developing christology. The intent was to reveal how multifaceted the debate of Jesus' dual nature was in the early centuries and how the ecumenical councils served as little more than speed bumps to heretical doctrines. Particularly this paper focused on the arguments preceding the Council of Chalcedon in 451, and the council's attempt to institute a unifying decree regarding the binary nature of the Christ. Although the Council of Chalcedon was unsuccessful in their objective of unifying the church and divorcing orthodoxy from heresy, it did affirm the single personality of Christ and the legitimacy and excellence of his dual nature. In the end, it is crucial for Christians to understand that Jesus is both fully human and fully divine. Through his humanity, Jesus is able to identify with the human condition and reveal God's love for humanity. Through his divinity, Jesus is able to express the true nature of God and magnify his uniqueness in the world.