Anglican Essentials: Going Deeper–Articulating the faith

7. The humanity of Jesus: the Councils of Ephesus and Chalcedon

The Councils of Nicaea and Constantinople had settled the question of the full divinity of Christ (of the same substance with the Father), but what about his humanity?  How do the human and divine characteristics co-exist in Jesus? 

The Church was to be plagued by Christological controversies over the humanity of Christ for a long time.  These controversies reflect both the work of the Holy Spirit in the Church and the complex and often unedifying political conflict amongst those who held opposing views.  Regarding the central issues, there was a tendency, on the one hand, to push in the direction of humanity (Antioch), emphasizing the distinction between the human and divine aspects, and on the other hand, to push too far in the direction of divinity(Alexandria), at the expense of the humanity.  A complex series of events lead to two ecumenical councils, Ephesus (431) and Chalcedon (451) to deal with the disputes.  While the Councils defined what has come to be known as “orthodoxy” among Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholics, and Protestants, they also led to permanent divisions in the churches of the East that persist to this day. 

Part of the division was associated with resistance to Imperial political pressures.  The Nestorian (or Assyrian) Church, became prominent in Mesopotamia, Persia and as far as China, where Nestorian Christians there were described later by Marco Polo (1254-1324).  The “monophysite” dispute lead to separate Churches, especially in Egypt, Syria, Armenia, Ethiopia, and parts of India.  Ecumenical activity among Catholic, Orthodox, and “non-Calcedonian” Churches in the 20th Century has led towards greater unity.

Nestorius (386-451) was Patriarch of Constantinople (428-431) and represented the Antiochene tradition.  He did not accept the formula Theotokos (Bearer-of-God) which was being used for Jesus’ mother Mary.  He preferred the designation Christostokos (Bearer of Christ), to indicate that Mary gave birth to the human Jesus, but not to the Logos, the eternal Word of God. Nestorius was accused by his arch-opponent Cyril (375-444), Patriarch of Alexandria (412-444), of dividing Christ into two parts. At Nestorius’ request, a Council at Ephesus was called by the Emperor Theodosius II, with Pope Celestine’s approval, in 431 to deal with the dispute.  This is considered the Third Ecumenical Council.  Cyril convened the Council before the pro-Nestorian bishops led by John of Antioch arrived.  The Council condemned Nestorius, who was deposed and exiled, affirmed Jesus as one person, not two separate “people”: complete God and complete man, with a rational soul and body.  The Virgin Mary is “Theotokos” because she gave birth not to man but to God as a man (this Greek term was translated into Latin as “Mother of God,” the term used in the Western Roman tradition). The union of the two natures of Christ occurred so as not to confuse or disturb the other.  John of Antioch convened another Council, which condemned Cyril, but Cyril and John reconciled in 433.

A second dispute broke out when Eutyches (c380-456), an influential monk of Alexandria, in order to counter Nestorian tendencies taught that Christ has only one “nature” (physis, thus the doctrine is called monophysite).   This spread among the Alexandrians and part of the East, resulted by a disputatious and inconclusive Council called by Theodosius II in 449.  A second Council, advocated by Pope Leo III, and the new Emperor Marcian, was called at Chalcedon in 451 to deal with this dispute and the aftermath of the 449 Council.  The Council of Chalcedon is the Fourth Ecumenical Council, and was attended by around 600 bishops or their representatives, one of the largest Councils of the ancient Church.  The “Chalcedonian Formula” became the standard of Eastern Orthodoxy and Western Christianity.  Due in part to political strains, it led to a permanent schism with many churches of the East in Egypt and other parts of the Empire, called monophysite churches, which along with the Nestorian Churches, reject the “formula of Chalcedon”.

The heart of the Chalcedonian formula is that Jesus is fully God and fully human, with two natures, human and divine, united in one person.  The formula, simultaneously following the via positiva and the via negativa, makes affirmations both about what is and what is not regarding how we think about the distinctions,. Ultimately the formula does not, and indeed cannot, resolve the mystery at the heart of the Word-made-flesh, Emmanuel, God-with-us.

The Definition of the Council of Chalcedon (451 A.D.)

Therefore, following the holy fathers, we all with one accord teach men to acknowledge one and the same Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, at once complete in Godhead and complete in manhood, truly God and truly man, consisting also of a reasonable soul and body; of one substance [homousion] with the Father as regards his Godhead, and at the same time of one substance [homousion] with us as regards his manhood; like us in all respects, apart from sin; as regards his Godhead, begotten of the Father before the ages, but yet as regards his manhood begotten, for us men and for our salvation, of Mary the Virgin, the God-bearer [theotokos]; one and the same Christ, Son, Lord, Only-begotten, recognized in two natures [physis], without confusion, without change, without division, without separation; the distinction of natures [physis] being in no way annulled by the union, but rather the characteristics of each nature [physis] being preserved and coming together to form one person [prosopon] and subsistence [hypostasis], not as parted or separated into two persons, but one and the same Son and Only-begotten God the Word, Lord Jesus Christ; even as the prophets from earliest times spoke of him, and our Lord Jesus Christ himself taught us, and the creed of the fathers has handed down to us.

Unsuccessful attempts were later made by the Emperors Zeno (474-491) and Justinian (525-565) to bring about reconciliation in the Empire of the Chalcedonian and non-Chalcedonian Christians. 

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