The Council of Chalcedon Re-Examined, by V.C. Samuel
The next section of Samuel’s book proceeds to the Council of Chalcedon. But before coming to this, I would like to review the path thus far. Something has been bubbling under my surface, and I think I can best express it by summarizing the events prior to Chalcedon.
Keep in mind a couple of points: disagreement regarding the conclusions at Chalcedon in 451 resulted in the first, long-lasting (until today) split in the Church (the more recent would be the split in 1054 between East and West, and the Reformation beginning in 1517).
The non-Chalcedonian Churches include the Ethiopian, Coptic, Armenian, and others. These represent a small portion of the Christian community (at least some of these have accepted the better-clarified doctrines on Christ’s nature in subsequent councils).
Secondly, the disagreements leading up to Chalcedon centered on different views by Alexandria and Antioch regarding how to describe the nature of Christ. The disagreement between these two sees would play out throughout the time leading to Chalcedon.
From the earliest days after Christ’s resurrection and ascension, the development of doctrine began its journey. We see disputes even in the book of Acts, and disputes did not end with the writing of the book of Revelation.
The disciples went to the four corners of the known world, even before they had any written New Testament letters or Gospels. Teachings were passed on orally, each, no doubt carrying understandings that in some ways were unique to each disciples’ views. I imagine that local custom and culture also influenced how the teaching was understood.
On a better understanding of the nature of Christ, while the question wasn’t somewhat settled until Chalcedon, the essence of the doctrine can be found in the Scriptures and in the earliest Church fathers.
Now, for a brief summary of the events leading to Chalcedon:
Nestorius presided over the see of Constantinople from 428 to 431. He was condemned as a heretic by the Council of Ephesus in 431 for teaching the “foul doctrine” of two Sons. Nestorius insisted this was not his teaching, instead using the term prosopon to describe his views. The council, presided over by Cyril of Alexandria, was held before the Syrian (Antiochene) delegation could arrive.
On the Alexandrine and Antiochene positions: Those representing Antioch were not in full agreement with the positions taken in Ephesus in 431, and opposed to them were those from Alexandria. Externally this problem was resolved by the reunion of Cyril of Alexandria and John of Antioch in 433.
But the reunion was understood differently by those in the two camps. This different understanding would lead to further controversies and difficulties – especially after John’s death. There is something worth noting here: the differences were so nuanced that even a written exchange between the leaders of these two centers of Christendom could be understood differently.
The extreme opposition to Nestorius exposed another heresy, that of Eutyches, an abbot in Constantinople, who maintained that Godhead and manhood were so united in Christ that after the union the manhood became absorbed in the Godhead.
He was condemned in a synod held by Flavian, Bishop of Constantinople, in 448. Eutyches, however, believed he would be creating new doctrine if he agreed to the statements offered by Flavian.