In our last lectures, we were discussing some of the Christological controversies which were brewing at this time of church history. Today, we’ll take a look at some of the events and examine the very important Council of Chalcedon which met in the year 451. To help us to understand those events, we’ll begin today’s lecture by taking a look at the Council of Ephesus and how they dealt with the difficult Christological questions surrounding the person of Nestorius and move on into the Council of Chalcedon itself.
As I mentioned in the last lecture, the situation had come to the burning point between Cyril and Nestorius. Both thought that the other made serious Christological errors and that the end result of the other’s Christology meant a danger for Christianity itself. We mentioned in our last lecture the necessity for four basic points for Christology to be orthodox. We especially underlined the necessity for complete divinity, complete humanity, complete union, and yet complete distinction of those two natures. This is not an easy task, and it’s one that the church is going to struggle with for quite a long time. The church struggle has already begun, as we have seen in our last lecture. Move with me to the year 431 and the Council of Ephesus to see how the resolution is beginning.
In that synod at the Council of Ephesus in 431, there was no new formula of belief propounded. There wasn’t even discussion of a new confession at that synod. There was a creed which was accepted, and that creed originated from the time of the council. What is important concerning the council is that it once again underlined the significance of the Council of Nicea and its Christological assertions. Remember with me that during the time period of the Council of Nicea, 325, over a century prior to this council, the issues were not Christological but Trinitarian. Who is this Jesus in relationship to His Father? Is He a completely subordinate Son? Is He an adopted Son? These were the questions around the Council of Nicea. But as that council articulated the Trinitarian truths between 325 and 381 (the Council of Constantinople), also it articulated Christological truths which were at that point not under intense scrutiny and discussion. The Council of Ephesus underlined the Council of Nicea’s thinking on the nature of Christ, that being consubstantial with the Father meant that He must have full divinity, full humanity, a union of those two persons in one person and yet a distinction. Also the second letter of Cyril to Nestorius—we mentioned that letter yesterday—was given the imprimatur, the stamp of approval, as the best way or the correct way to understand the Christological articulations of the Council of Nicea. At the Council of Ephesus, Nestorius was condemned. And their letter of condemnation follows these words:
The holy synod which by the grace of God in conformity with the ordinance of our pious and Christ-loving kings is assembled at Ephesus writing to Nestorius the new Judas; know that because of your godless teachings and disobedience towards the canons, in accordance with the decree of the statues of the church, on the 22nd of the current month of June you are condemned by the holy synod and dispossessed of any dignity in the church.
Strong words equating a theologian with the new Judas! This gives an indication of the intensity and the importance of this Christological debate. The discussion now is focusing its attention upon one main point of doctrine. One important sentence from this time period helps us to understand the parameters of the discussion. That sentence goes like this: that “one and the same is the eternal Son of the Father and the Son of the virgin Mary born in time after the flesh. Therefore, she might rightly be called mother of God.” Remember that was the phrase that caused this great discussion. And this Council of Ephesus gives a definition to that phrase which is helpful. Let’s hear the sentence and analyze it very quickly once again. “Jesus is one and the same eternal Son of the Father and Son of the virgin Mary.” Now how can that be? Obviously Jesus in His divinity is the eternal Son of God. But did in fact that eternal Son of God become incarnate? Of course the answer of Christianity and the Scriptures is yes. Therefore, this Jesus is rightly the Son of the virgin Mary. He was born in time, born after or according to the flesh. He was fleshly, He was human. Therefore, says the synod of Ephesus, “she might be called rightly the mother of God.” Certainly these are interesting phrases and one that is not particularly useful in twentieth-century Christological discussion. But it did help to focus the church’s attention upon the important truths that Jesus truly is God and yet truly was born a human being. And let no one say that this is an easy thing to comprehend. It’s the first and only time in all of history. It’s a unique occurrence. But it’s very important that the church understand its teachings and the Bible’s instructions very clearly.
That was the year 431. Again in terms of the time chart that you should be making, you have 325 as the Council of Nicea, then the discussions and the debate between 325 and 381. Immediately after the acceptance of the teaching of Chalcedon in the church concerning the Trinity, the church turns its attention to the two natures of Christ, assuming that in time He was born of the virgin Mary, assuming that He is fully divine, assuming that He is eternally with the Father of the same substance of the Father. What is the nature of this incarnate Christ? Nestorius comes upon the scene. The crisis arises, and in 431 we have the first general condemnation of Nestorius. But we’re still twenty years from the time of the Council of Chalcedon.
Let’s very quickly look at that twenty-year period from Ephesus to Chalcedon. And so if you follow in the lecture outline, this would be point B, From Ephesus to Chalcedon. Nestorius had a number of supporters in the church, people who were convinced that he was protecting certain truths of the Bible, certain truths of Christianity. He had a number of important friends who were quite capable theologically. How were they going to react to the condemnation of Nestorius at the Council of Ephesus? The year of 430 and 431 is an intensely important year for Nestorius personally. And as this anathema, as this condemnation is delivered to Nestorius for his consideration, so Nestorius immediately hands the documentation against him to his friends. And so I introduce this time by taking a look at the situation from Nestorius’s vantage point.
Nestorius gives the literature over to some other bishops; one fellow was named John of Antioch, and another is his brother Andrew of Samosata. So we have two other characters in the field. You’ve got John and Andrew and a new character, Theodoret of Cyrus. And we’ll focus our attention very briefly on Theodoret. These men were given the privilege and the opportunity to defend their friend, Nestorius, before the church. What did Theodoret think about the condemnation of Nestorius?
Before the beginning of the Easter time of 431, Theodoret, who has a tremendous intellectual ability in the Eastern church, began to think about a refutation of the charges that are made especially by Cyril. And he is afraid that Cyril of Alexandria is an Apollinarian. He follows Apollinaris. Now what is that? Theodoret tells us that this root of the Apollinarian heresy was the source of the wrong teaching of Cyril that believed that there was only one nature of the flesh and of the Godhead of Christ, that there’s only one nature of that flesh. And so when you see the suffering of Christ on the cross, you must attribute that suffering to the Godhead of the only-begotten. And that means that God in fact suffers on the cross. Cyril himself says Theodoret is the inventor of this idea of the hypostatic union in Christ, that his hypostasis is so unified that you can’t tell the difference between the human and the divine. And that expression is found neither in the Scripture nor in the church fathers.
As we look at Theodoret, we see that in his mind the words hypostasis and fusis or nature, these two words are synonyms. He understands them again as substance and nature. And so the two words can be interchanged. So for him, a union by nature or substance is necessarily what we’ll later discuss in more detail, monophysitism, the mixture of the two natures so that again the distinction in the two natures of Christ is not made. This will also jeopardize, according to Theodoret, the whole doctrine of salvation in Christianity. I mention Theodoret very quickly and in a summary fashion not to fully elaborate his thinking but to give us a picture of what is happening theologically at this time. The issues are intense. And if we can enter into the arena itself, we can see that the struggle is in many cases one of needed precision in theological terminology. But the struggle is truly at least as the participants saw it, a matter of determining who is right in terms of salvation, in terms of the nature of the mediator.
And so this is a very important struggle, and those who are followers of Nestorius (and that’s why I picked Theodoret, because Nestorius is going to be condemned) are going to be considered heretics. And his teaching is incorrect. But we needed to enter into that side of the argument to see that there is a depth of conviction on their side that they are speaking of Christian truths, and that what the church must do and will do in 451 in the Council of Chalcedon is walk the middle path between the two extremes of Theodoret and Cyril. They must be very careful to fully understand, rightfully use, and fully define the terms that they apply to our understanding of the nature of Jesus who is both God and Man.
And so the armies are arrayed for battle. The ammunition is loaded in the guns, and the day of great conflict comes with the year 451 and the Council of Chalcedon. The Council of Chalcedon itself as a historical event is fascinating and quite entertaining. But on the other hand, it’s a little bit sad. The parties that were assembled for this debate, which is known as the third ecumenical council, of extreme importance, were six in number. There were six different factions at this council. First you have Nestorius and his friends. Then there came Cyril and his friends. And by the way, there were about fifty of Cyril’s friends who were bishops throughout the empire; then came some people from Jerusalem who weren’t personally involved in the conflict. Then came churches’ representatives from Asia, representatives from the church in Rome, and representatives from the city of Antioch; so it was a large ecumenical council.
The proceedings of the council itself are too numerous and too sordid to go into great detail. The results of the council are these. In the years prior to the council, Nestorius had already been banned. And by the year of the proceeding of the council, Nestorius, because of the great difficulty of his life, because of the great conflicts, because of his being banned from the empire, dies himself around the year 451. So right after this great council, Nestorius himself dies. And Nestorianism is condemned throughout the Christian church. However, we saw in 325 the continuance of Arianism. And at one point in between the two councils of Nicea and Chalcedon, Arianism wins the day in the church. So in 451 we have a similar condemnation of a teaching that is determined by the church to be heretical, that is, Nestorianism. But that’s not the end of Nestorianism itself. Nestorius dies in the same year as the council. But Nestorianism is going to continue in the outskirts of the Christian church for quite a long time after Nestorius.
Interestingly, Nestorianism is going to become the official religion of the church in what was at one time called Persia. It was the official religion of the Persian church for quite a long time. This church sought to obtain its independence and freedom for itself especially as it was in relationship to the Christian church in general. It attempted to continue teaching the doctrines of Nestorius and to live peaceably within the empire. And so they did that by assuring the king of Persia that the religion of Nestorius, their religion, would be a peaceable one. And politically this continuance of Nestorianism was aided because the Persian king came in conflict with the Roman Empire at one point later in the sixth century. And so they could assure the Persian king that their religion was not the same as their great enemy the Romans. And so that aided the continuation of Nestorianism in what was at one time called Persia.
Moving ahead chronologically, just because it’s an interesting phenomenon to observe, this Nestorianism which had its home in Persia also sent out missionaries throughout the world when the possibility was there. Nestorianism was then transmitted to India, where it lasted for centuries. And in the 1800s, Americans sent missionaries to the Nestorian churches of India, which still, although very small, survive as far I know to this day. So Nestorianism was condemned, and in 451 Nestorius himself dies. But this Christological error continues at least until the 1800s and in the 1900s is gone from the face of the earth. But it continued for many, many centuries after the time of Nestorius himself. So that was a fascinating little side track in terms of Nestorius and what had happened.
But the full events of the council in 451 can only be gone over in a very summary fashion. Believe it or not there are multivolume books written on this one council on the historical events and the theological significance. So let me emphasize as I go over this, and you’ll see some of these volumes found in the bibliography which comes with the course. You’ll see that I’m going over this in a very summary fashion. So we have the condemnation. The bottom line is the condemnation of Nestorius himself and the continuation though of Nestorianism in different backwaters of the Roman Empire.
One of the other characters in this field of battle in 451 is the pope of Rome, whose name is Leo. And if you remember from my discussion of the development of the papacy, I think it legitimate to call Leo the first pope or at least to use the word pope as the supreme head of the Roman church. Leo was a very bold and an able fellow. And he represented as far as he thought, and if not in entirety, nevertheless he did represent the power of the Western church. But Leo, because he had been an opponent of Nestorius, had been treated badly by the followers of Nestorius. And we need to make one more sidetrack to fully understand what is happening in 451. Leo, the pope of Rome, the bishop of bishops in the Western church, was deposed from his bishopric in the year 449. . . . Deposed from his bishopric? How can that be? We know that Pope Leo continued until 461. Was he really deposed? Here’s where the story becomes quite fascinating. We learned again, as we looked at the last century, that Athanasius was deposed a number of times from his bishopric but was always brought in by his supporters. So we have a lack of unity in the church where one part of the church says that this one character, Athanasius in the last century, Nestorius in this century, is deposed and should be banished, and other parts of the church saying no, he should be restored.
So in 449 in Ephesus, a synod was called to help deal with this controversy, and Leo was a participant in this synod (again two years before the great Council of Chalcedon). This synod of 449 is important for what happened in the church, not so important in terms of theology. It’s meeting in the town of Ephesus, but it’s not known as the synod of Ephesus. Rather, this historical event is known as the Robber Synod. Why would it be called the Robber Synod? It’s called the Robber Synod because of the action of the participants. In other words, they acted like a band of robbers. There were 135 bishops present. And the leader of this synod, not very important, but his name is Dioscorus, came accompanied by (are you ready for this) armed guards. He comes to a synod of the church with armed guards to protect himself. You can imagine that this is not going to be your normal kind of synod. And as we look at twentieth-ccentury church politics, maybe coming with armed guards wouldn’t be a bad idea for some of the great assemblies of the church. It might prove necessary in the near future.
He comes with armed guards. And Leo, who was one of his opponents (this Dioscorus had supported Nestorius; Leo was against Nestorius and against Dioscorus), comes with a number of bishops from the area of Italy and from the European West. And at that synod, Leo was determined to be out of accord with Christian teaching and was deposed from being bishop of Rome. Now that was pretty fascinating, because Ephesus has difficulty deposing bishops all the way on the Western side of the empire. And so these bishops who were deposed were not just treated with the courtesy and respect that would normally be expected in the city. What we have is Leo himself during the time of great discussion not being present. But his legates, his friends were there. And they were going to be physically forced to sign the letter of deposition. That is, the friends of Leo were going to have their arms taken by these armed guards and their names affixed to the letter of deposition. So they had to sneak out of the city at night when they saw that the events were turning against the pope of Rome. A fellow who was named Flavian (and he’s only important because of what happened to him), who was also a representative of the Western church, was not so fortunate as those who had escaped during the night. Flavian had been present through the council and had been in agreement with Leo theologically. And because of his agreement with Leo and that Leo was deposed in this synod, he was so physically mistreated by his theological opponents that later Flavian died of his wounds. And that’s why this Robber Synod is called the Robber Synod. It’s not so important in terms of a theological direction of the church. But it is extremely important for us to understand the disintegration of the Christian church at this time.
The year is about 449. It’s over one hundred years since the time of the rise of Constantine and the acceptance of Christianity as the state religion. And can you imagine such action occurring in the truly ancient church period when professing Christ was a matter of life and death? The Robber Synod demonstrates to us that there were tremendous changes in the hundred years after the time of the Council of Nicea. And as soon as we finish our introduction to these Christological controversies, we’re going to turn our attentions to a new chapter in the period of the ancient church as we look at worship and discipline and social life in the church. As we trace that important theme which is of tremendous practical value for us, we’re going to see after 325 what we’re going to call or have called in the past the secularization of Christianity. The Robber Synod demonstrates this rapid deterioration in the actions and in the morality of the Christian church.
So Leo is deposed by the Robber Synod. Flavian is beaten up by his theological brothers to the point of death. The church is in a great quandary at this point. Leo calls for another synod in Italy, in his home turf where matters could be straightened out. And the idea was a good one. The emperor, whose name is Marcian, who had replaced Adosius in the year 450, decides that an entire council of the church needs to be called to clear up the tremendous fighting. And it’s called to meet in the city of Nicea in the year 451. Wait a minute. We talked about a council in Nicea in 325. But if your memory serves you correctly, in 451 we don’t memorize that there’s another Council of Nicea, right? It’s the Council of Chalcedon. So how does the council go from Nicea to Chalcedon in the year 451?
Let’s hear the details of that story as well. This would be point B in the lecture on the Council of Constantinople. The bishops begin to come to the city of Nicea in September of 451. But because they were fighting so much physically, they have to leave that city and are summoned to Chalcedon, which is right opposite Constantinople where the emperor himself lives and where he has armed guards. So the imperial court itself is invited to attend this church court so that we have a complete union of church and state activity in the council of Chalcedon. A strange and complex set of events, isn’t it? The number of bishops in this council far exceeded all other councils of the church. And in terms of doctrinal importance, most commentators on this council maintain that it’s only second in importance to the very important Council of Nicea. There were five hundred to six bishops present. But all of them or nearly all of them were Greeks and Orientals, that is, people coming from that part of the empire what we call the Eastern part of the Roman Empire. And there were not many Africans, only two, and some legates from the area of Rome. So, although it is an ecumenical council, in terms of actual numbers it is primarily an Eastern council.
The papal legates had therefore to represent the whole of Latin Christianity. And the proceedings, as you can imagine, were from the beginning quite tumultuous. Because of their feelings against Nestorius, anyone who followed him theologically was in great trouble. But there were those also who were still not convinced that Nestorius was incorrect. And some were quite incapable of uttering an anathema against him and an anathema against all who would not call Mary the mother of God, and an anathema against those who divided the one Christ, so says the opponents of Nestorius, into two Sons. Once again, the details and all the interesting details of this council need to be gone through very quickly. The outcome is once again quite important for us. And as I’ve mentioned repeatedly, the outcome will be the condemnation of Nestorius. The text of the council is found in the book that you should be reading with the lectures, the book written by J. N. D. Kelly. And the text of that council is found on page 339. The most important implications of the statement of the Council of Chalcedon is mentioned by Kelly in four points, that the properties of both natures of Christ may be attributed to the one person.
There is one person, Jesus of Nazareth, Son of God and Son of Man and yet having the nature of both properties, divine and human. And so this Jesus could be both omniscient and yet have limited knowledge. Second, the suffering of the God-Man can be regarded as true and infinite. He really suffered. And His sufferings were really infinite in their suffering, and yet the divine nature remained impassable, incapable of suffering. God in Himself cannot suffer. Third, it is the divinity and not the humanity that constitutes the root and basis of the personality of Christ. And fourth, the Logos did not unite with a distinct human individual but with human nature. In other words, there was not first an individual man with whom the second person of the Trinity associated Himself. But rather the union was affected with the substance of humanity in the womb of the virgin. Do you understand then the importance of this council in terms of these four points that Kelly makes quite clear in his textbook? And I would strongly suggest studying that part in the textbook in that Kelly gives us the details that we can’t give in the lecture part of the course.
The symbol was solemnly ratified, the symbol of the Council of Chalcedon, on October 25 in the presence of the emperor and the empress. And the emperor thanked Christ for the restoration of the unity and faith of the church and thereafter threatened everyone with punishment who would not follow the teachings of this council. And interestingly, now this synod again of perhaps nearly six hundred representatives of the church exclaimed this. And listen to what they say about the emperor: “You are the priest and king, victor in war and teacher of the faith.” And this further demonstrates the interconnection of church and state and that we see this interconnection developing more and more as time goes on. So the question of Nestorianism is at least legally laid to rest with the council that we have in 451.
But there were some other important matters of the church picked up by this council, just as we had in the Council of Nicea over one hundred years earlier. And it gives us once again a glimpse into church life in the time period of the ancient church. There were twenty-eight different canons. Remember we introduced that word in an earlier lecture, canon meaning a church pronouncement upon either a way of life or a church pronouncement upon liturgical use or something that relates to the whole of Christianity. There were twenty-eight different canons given at this council as well. One of those canons was that the bishop of Constantinople, the main city of the Eastern empire, had equal rights with the bishop of Rome, the main city of the Western church, and that he was placed together with him in rank. Leo, who was the bishop of Rome, affirmed the doctrinal confession. In other words Leo said that yes, in fact Nestorius should be condemned. But he protested against this part of the proceedings of the Council of Chalcedon. The protest of Leo in the year 451 against seeing an equality with the bishop of Constantinople, that is, equal weight of the city of Rome and the city of Constantinople, is a foreshadowing to an important event which I must mention now but is not part of this course. And that is a foreshadowing of the split between the Eastern church and the Western church in the eleventh century, and the roots of that split are certainly seen in 451. There’s going to be a time when the bishop of Rome and the bishop of Constantinople pronounce the other one to be heretical and excommunicated from the church. And so from that time on in the eleventh century, there is a great divide in united Christianity or at least supposedly united Christianity that we see in the early church period. And that break is then indicative of what you have in terms of the Greek Orthodox Church and the Russian Orthodox Church in contrast to the Roman Catholic Church. That split is in the eleventh century, but the roots of that split are to be found now in the fifth century as Leo violently opposes an equality of theological weight between the bishopric of Rome and bishopric of Constantinople.
This is one of the last great historical events of our treatment of the ancient church. The peace that is proclaimed here, as I mentioned just a minute ago, is not going to last a long time. Nestorianism itself is going to continue through the medieval era. But debates concerning the doctrine of Christ are going to continue until the year 553 at a council this time of Constantinople. A group called the Monophysites, who conceded that after the union Christ has a composite nature but denied that He had two distinct natures, are going to be dealt with about a hundred years later. And so for the Monophysites, two distinct natures would involve a duality of persons. And the Monophysites are going to separate themselves from the orthodox Church as well. But this will take another hundred years.
And this discussion will eventually lead to what we call the adoptionist controversy of the seventh and eighth centuries. This controversy starts in Spain at a Council of Toledo in 675. But as you remember, 600 marks the end of this course. So we won’t be able to talk about that controversy at all, but we will be able to discuss the Monophysite controversy and the further discussions concerning the nature of Christ. So 451 represents for us a beginning and an end; just as the Council of Nicea was the legal end of Arianism, so Arianism survived until 381 in terms of the church needing to fully understand what it had agreed upon in 325. That same type of activity is occurring in 451. As we have the important Council of Chalcedon, again second in importance to the Council of Nicea. We have the legal demise of Nestorianism, so that those who still follow Nestorius must be in the backwaters of the empire.
So it’s the end of Nestorianism in one sense, but it is in another sense still the beginning of discussion in terms of Christology. We still need to trace that important historical doctrine through another century and will be doing that in future lectures. But to recap what is happening in 451, we observe some very important practical and theological points. As we reflect on the issues, the issues are of supreme importance. Who is this Jesus who is our Savior? Yes, we know that He was eternally with the Father. That was determined in the fourth century with the Council of Nicea and ratified in 381 with the Council of Constantinople. Now that that issue is behind us, how does this Jesus who walks upon the face of the earth, who is fully God and fully Man, how do we understand the nature of this Jesus of Nazareth? What is the nature of the incarnation itself? If He’s not fully God, if He’s not fully Man, if these two persons or natures are not united in one person, can we have a full and complete Savior who redeems all of life? That’s certainly an important question. The answer to that question is decided in 451. It’s decided that yes, He must have two complete natures, that we must not depreciate the full Godhead of Jesus. And therefore, the title “mother of God” can be given to the virgin Mary. But 451 is not going to provide the complete answer. And we’ll see the answers to that question in further lectures.