The Curious Wording of Chalcedon

The council of Nicea was not the end of the Arian controversy in the church, but the beginning of a protracted war of political maneuvering and intrigue. Instead of church discipline, imperial banishment played a big part. The Arian emperors banished many of the Nicene bishops. What turned the tide seems to have been Julian the Apostate’s decision to revoke all banishments in order to sow confusion in the church. He was diabolically ingenious in scheming the revival of paganism and the destruction of Christianity, for all that he was wrong. He revoked the banishments in order to escalate the war in the church, but the result was instead to make clear a line that had been blurred by the controversy: it was the line between the true and the false, between reason and integrity of persuasion on the one hand and on the other hand deceit, ulterior motives and unscrupulous behavior.

What I have learned in the little study I’ve done is how much unscrupulous interpretation played a part in the proceedings. Many of the Arians signed on to Nicea, but with mental reservations and with their own ideas of how to take the wording. They bowed to the emperor, and then proceeded to maneuver the imperial power over to their side. Their idea was not to proceed by correct reasoning and persuasive arguments, but by intrigue, force and maneuvering. The world did groan to find itself Arian by the middle of the fourth century, but when, to everyone’s surprise, the emperor declared himself indifferent and even hostile to Arianism, it was shown to be doomed and began its decline.

In Alexandria especially, the reaction to Arianism was strong. So much so, that the seeds of what we now call the Miaphysite position were sown in the reaction, and subsequent monophysites would continue to appeal not only to Cyril, but even to Athanasius. At the same time, the preservation of oneness that seems to have motivated Arius is obviously present in the monophysite tendency (which Dawson interestingly links to later Islam).

In the meantime, due north of Alexandria across the Mediterranean, in Laodicea, Apollinaris began to divulge his ultra-Arian error sometime in the second half of the fourth century. He believed the higher human faculties (spirit or mind and heart, or reason) were removed from the human Jesus and substituted by the divine Logos, so that the union was of a human animal endowed with divine reason itself.

The denial of the teaching of Apollinaris resulted in an affirmation of the perfect humanity of our Lord. Jesus Christ must be a complete human being: were he an incomplete human being, he would be an incomplete savior. So now two things come into clear consciousness for the church: the first is the full divinity affirmed already at Nicea. The struggle for this still continued, so that the doctrine was in the forefront of the problems the church dealt with at the same time they realize the importance of the second thing: the full humanity of our Lord. These are two very distinct and difficult things to understand simultaneously about one person, and the question now became that of the union: how to hold both things together? As an early expression of the implications of what the church was dealing with, there is a designation now used of the other human chiefly involved in the incarnation, Mary, who is described as the God-bearer, or the Mother of God, because it is clear that he who was born to her was, besides being fully human, also fully divine. In other words: if your son is God, you are the mother of God; and there is no getting around this, though some have tried.

It is at this point that Nestorius, bishop of Constantinople began to react. He was not happy with the term theotokos (God-bearer). While he does not seem to have rejected some kind of union of the two natures of Christ, he refused to speak of this union in terms of the person: he seems to have believed that our Lord had two persons and two natures, relegating the union to inexpressibility. Which is interesting; much of our theology treads on the borders of mystery, and there are inexpressible things, but it also seeks to understand what can and cannot be said about what is revealed. The error of Nestorius was to refuse to acknowledge that the union was based in personality. Because he refused that, he logically implied a refusal of union altogether. The problem with his doctrine is shown in the alternative expression he proposed: instead of theotokos, he proposed anthropotokos, which is to say: man-bearer. To say that Mary is the man-bearer is to say nothing different of her than you would of any other mother, and that is to say nothing different of her son than of any other son born to woman. In an effort to affirm the humanity, Nestorius essentially denied the wonder of the incarnation, the whole point of divinity. As a result his mystery was the mystery of confusion instead of the mystery of wonder.

Cyril of Alexandria rose up against Nestorius and wrote definitive letters to him which contain the orthodox rejection of the Nestorian confusion. And here we see the two polarities that are behind this struggle and also had to be reconciled. On the one hand was the Alexandrian school, and that which tended toward the union of natures that is later called the monophysite. It is the view that at its worst takes the union beyond personality and into nature. The monophysite position is that the two natures blend into a third new thing. It is essentially the Apollinarian position, but affirms the full humanity. The Alexandrian school has an impulse to seek the coherence of truth, but sometimes does that at the expense of the diversity of the details.

The Alexandrian position affirms wonder, but sometimes that affirmation goes beyond wonder and into the love of the strange; there is nothing more alien in all the annals of heresy than the monophysite Christ–this being is truly neither God nor man, but something else. The ultra-Cyrilline position is the monophysite, and it is the unmitigated tendency of Alexandria at its worst. But at its best, the Alexandrian view, like the corresponding mode of interpretation, affirms wonder. It seeks to go deeper, and it seeks coherence.

Think of Origen. Origen’s commentaries were not only popular, they shaped the interpretation of late antiquity like nothing else. To understand this you have to realize that the Bible was not a wondrous book to the unconverted church fathers. They viewed it as a crude collection of alien bafflegab, full of contradictions. What Clement and Origen did was to continue the work begun by Philo (add ‘of Alexandria’ to each and you’ll have his full name) of translating the Bible into the language of the conceptual universe of Greek philosophy. (An adequate if not exhaustive definition of neo-platonism, the philosophy of most thinking church fathers, is that it is Greek philosophy beginning to come to terms with Christian theology.) The search is a search for the wonder of coherence in Scripture: how to make sense of its divergent details, how to bring it all together in one.

On the other hand you have the Antiochene impulse. If Alexandria is the capital of the allegorical interpretation searching for a wonder of coherence, Antioch is the capital of literal, restrained interpretation, concerned with particular accuracy more than general coherence. If the Alexandrians are searching for Truth, the Antiochenes are searching for historical accuracy: truth, as it were. A personal reaction of mine is that the literal, restrained interpretation can sometimes err in the loss of wonder. When it does this, it becomes uninteresting, and it is wrongly so. That is not to say we don’t need restraints and discipline in our interpretation, but that it would be wrong to believe conversely that allegorical intepretation does not have restraints (or does not represent a right impulse that with proper discipline is crucial). It would be wrong to assume allegorical simply equals irresponsible; Origen was speculative, but you have to understand what he was working with and you’ll see he was not just wild. And it would be wrong to believe that the Antiochene school (from which came Theodore of Mopsuestia, John Chrysostom and Nestorius, to name the big names) was altogether wrong. We need both right tendencies in each school: we need, for example, the detail of history to discipline our theories. But, on the other hand, there has to be a coherent narrative to your teaching of history, you can’t pearl-string facts under an arbitrary association. And the controversy needed the same. The church had to figure out how to bring together the best of the Alexandrian and the best of the Antiochene impulse in the controversy over the natures and person of our Lord.

Cyril’s position against Nestorius, denying that Christ is two persons, affirming that in his person there was a true union of fully human and divine was soon afterward exaggerated by a monk called Eutychius. Eutychius harks back, in a way, to Apollinaris because there is a diminishing of the humanity of Christ. But Eutychius took a different way toward the denial: he believed that the divine overwhelmed the human. It is a denial of what Christ affirms in the very first temptation the devil gives him. Jesus Christ could multiply bread and did so at least twice: for a public purpose. What he did not do was to use that ability to take care of his human needs. Why? Because for our salvation he lived a life of human obedience by faith in the promises of God. This may sound like a return to Nestorianism, and that’s exactly what Eutychius wanted to prevent; but he overcorrected. He was vindicated at a council (the ‘robber council’) but then condemned at the next council, Chalcedon. The natures could not be confused, they could not be separated, and they could not be mixed together into a new thing.

The symbol (creed) of Chalcedon can gather to itself disparaging terms among historians and even theologians today. Not because it is untrue, but, it seems to me, because it arose out of a situation so political, that few theological motives can be discerned. The circumstances leading up to it are increasingly off-putting. Cyril is no saint, let me tell you. And yet Chalcedon represents the crucial coming to terms with something difficult. It comes to terms not only with what must be affirmed, but also how it must be affirmed in order both to preserve the wonder of mystery without degenerating into the mystery of confusion. The union of the natures of Christ was in his person, a hypostatic union. Without it, we have no perfect savior, and that is crucial to our Christian faith.


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