Wednesday, March 9, 2022

The First Schism


The Council of Chalcedon was the fourth ecumenical council of the Christian church, convoked by Emperor Marcian. The council convened in Chalcedon, Bithynia (modern day Kadıköy, Turkey) from 8 October to 1 November 451.

The council, attended by 520 bishops or their representatives, was the largest and best-documented of the first seven ecumenical councils.

The principal purpose of the council was to re-assert the doctrine of the Council of Ephesus against the heresy derivative of Eutyches and Nestorius. Such heresies attempted to dismantle and separate Christ's divine nature from his humanity (Nestorianism) and further, to limit Christ as solely divine in nature (Monophysitism).

One nature or two?  If two, how was the relationship of the two natures to be understood?  The question of one nature or two was settled.  The precise language of how it was settled resulted in the first schism:

This disagreement would later inform the separation of the Oriental Orthodox Churches from the rest of Christianity, and led to the Council being regarded as "Chalcedon, the Ominous".

The topic interests me for several reasons.  The primary reason is that the divisions of the Church (and this being the first formal division) have been a stumbling block on many levels; for the purposes of this blog, this includes the level of liberty.

I have written of this disagreement before, concluding that I can’t figure out a hairs’ worth of difference in the Christological statements of the Chalcedonian as opposed to non-Chalcedonian Churches.  Obviously, there is a difference.  But my confusion may have some merit, and foundation….

From the channel Reason & Theology, a conversation with Dr. Richard Price.  First, who is Richard Price?

Richard Price is Professor Emeritus of the History of Christianity, Heythrop College and Honorary Research Fellow, Royal Holloway, University of London.

He also is Fr. Price.  Heythorp College was affiliated with the Catholic Church – was, because as of 2018 it is permanently closed.  As will be mentioned by him later, he identifies as a Chalcedonian.

He has written on Church history and especially on several of the early Councils.  As I have previously noted, he translated The Acts of the Council of Chalcedon, translating using both the Greek and Latin.  It is fair to say he is quite an expert on this topic – hence his views on this Council and the split should be taken seriously.

Much of the conversation is inside baseball – you have to know many details not only of Chalcedon but also other Church councils (I don’t).  Here I will focus on the controversy – the factors behind the split of the Oriental Orthodox from the then unified Church.

Dr. Price is asked: Why did Chalcedon receive such a bad reception in the East in the later part of the fifth century?  Keep in mind, “East” here does not only refer to the Oriental Orthodox Churches.

Price starts at the end:

Constantinople II (553) was concerned to reaffirm Chalcedon, but to give it a much more strongly Cyrillian interpretation. 

This was about 100 years after Chalcedon.  As you can imagine, with so much water under the bridge, mending fences grows more difficult – and Price will point to this issue shortly.

He then provides some background:

I don’t think the Chalcedonian definition did an entirely satisfactory job. 

He will get no disagreement from me.

It’s very striking: the bishops at Chalcedon were virtually unanimous that Cyril was a great theologian and we are loyal to Cyril.  There was a huge emphasis on that.  But you have to ask: how much of Cyril did they actually digest? 

He then notes two letters of Cyril, the second of which addresses Nestorius.  After more inside baseball:

Cyril’s third letter to Nestorius was not read out to the Council.  At one point, one of the bishops wanted it to be read out but was silenced.  So, see, that was unfortunate.  That was the thing that led the complete, one-hundred percent Cyrillians, to say that Chalcedon is not as Orthodox as it claims to be.

Cancel culture.  One of the causes of the spilt.  This precise issue – Cyril – was rectified at this later Council.

This was righted at the Second Council of Constantinople in 553, which is my favorite of the early Councils.  Under the very firm direction of the emperor Justinian, who was himself a very notable theologian.

He then reads a statement from this Second Council of Constantinople that, in his view, is one that would have also been acceptable to the non-Chalcedonians.

It is a great shame that by then it was too late to win back the non-Chalcedonians.  They had been embittered by the fact that Justinian had persecuted them. 

Well, that might do it.

Instead of saying ‘hooray.  The Chalcedonians are now in agreement with us,’ they said ‘the Chalcedonians are now admitting that Chalcedon was heretical!’  So that was, alas, a great opportunity missed.

It is interesting that the language came full circle – Chalcedonians clarified their language to an extent that non-Chalcedonians could also accept, yet the Chalcedonians felt this did not violate Chalcedon while the non-Chalcedonians did.  The reasons behind this disparate understanding of the history will be further examined shortly.

He was then asked: What is the message from Chalcedon that you would say is the real heart of the issue that you wish people would take away from that Council?  He offered:

I think that I would say that Chalcedon needs to be read with the later Councils of Constantinople II and Constantinople III, which in many ways fill some holes in Chalcedon. 

I think the Chalcedonian definition taken in isolation is open to too many different readings.  One trouble is, if you said ‘is the Chalcedonian definition true?’, it uses these terms “person” and “hypostasis” and “nature,” but it doesn’t define them.  And they were, at that time, still used in quite a wide variety of ways.

Hence, perhaps, the confusion.

The logic of these terms and their range of meanings are explored much later, by Maximus the Confessor and John of Damascus and others.  So those later developments need to be added in.

But by then you have Justinian’s persecutions and all that….

Finally: What do you think about Oriental Orthodoxy today in relation to Chalcedon?  Dr. Price’s reply:

I have to admit that we Chalcedonians have to agree that there were things that Chalcedon did not make clear, that the terminology was still too vague, it failed to express directly that the divine Christ was subject to all the human acts and experiences.  So, we need to go on to Constantinople II.

It sounds like a start.

Then I think in dialogue with the Oriental Orthodox, I can’t believe that the Oriental Orthodox are still accusing the Byzantine Orthodox of heresy.

I don’t know about the Oriental Orthodox on this, but I have heard enough from the Eastern Orthodox about the Oriental heresy.

I don’t think you can say ‘you’ve got to read Chalcedon in the light of some later councils.  Can’t you accept them?’  Well, you can’t really expect the Oriental Orthodox to say ‘well, now that you’ve explained Chalcedon in a more acceptable way, we’re ready to accept it.’  Because, after all, they only exist as a distinct body because they rejected Chalcedon.

You can’t expect them to now say ‘yes, perhaps we got it wrong.  Chalcedon, properly understood, yes, we can accept it.’  You couldn’t expect them to renege on their own history in that way. 

In other words, don’t expect them to rewrite history. 


Instead, Price offers another path:

So, I think that any new doctrinal agreement has to produce a new document that both sides can contribute to and both can accept.  And then it’s the job of the two sides to go back to their colleagues and persuade them that this new agreement means that there has been a real marriage of minds.

For the Chalcedonians to say to their fellow Chalcedonians, ‘look, we haven’t betrayed Chalcedon.  We now find that the Oriental Orthodox understanding of Christology may not use all of the same formulations, but their understanding of Christ, His relationship to the Father, His relationship to the two natures is essentially the same as ours.’

Which, at least for Dr. Price, seems to be a true and correct statement. 

But maybe there is too much water under the bridge.


  1. Hello Bionic,
    Would like to offer another viewpoint on the schisms through out the church history.
    This is a link to a website with some books offered for free.
    Now just because we offer them free does not mean they are not worth anything.
    There is another viewpoint about the schisms, one that involved people who were not accounted for nor did they take part in the councils.
    Myself gave up on religions years ago.
    Mainly because after going to so many different churches ,who all claim to follow the bible.
    No need to go into the details of that journey but basically
    they all have their own special sauce .
    Much like burger joints.
    We need the meat plain and not dressed up with special sauce.
    Anyway check out some of the books and would appreciate your feedback.
    Been reading through a lot of the posts here and find that we are all looking for the same thing.
    Sort of a unified theory on what the heck is going on.
    Seems that this is what Jesus came to settled once for all.
    He said He is the way.
    It is a narrow way not because he is narrow minded but He know how we are.

  2. Bionic, in one of the Ten Minute Bible Hour videos, Matt visits a Coptic Church. The pastor there mentions that the Coptic Church was divided from the Orthodox Church over them being considered Monophysite. But he said that recently the Coptic and Orthodox Churches reconciled and the Coptics are back in. Is this related to what you are discussing here?

    1. It is what I am talking about, but they aren't reconciled.

      The Oriental Churches (which include the Coptic) don't refer to themselves as Monophysites. They recognize the two natures, just in a different (apparently) way.

      The term they use is Miaphysite.

    2. Ok. So Coptics are Miaphysite. I got that wrong. But the pastor interviewed seemed to think they were reconciled.

    3. I should clarify: the Oriental Orthodox are labeled Monophysite by many Eastern critics. But, at least from what I have read, the Oriental do not accept this label.

      I think I saw the interview you mention, and I don't recall this statement of reconciliation. In any case, I am certain it is not so.