Thursday, November 17, 2022

Framing the Controversy

The council was opposed by a great part of the Christian east.  Led by some of the ablest theologians of those ancient times, this movement gained strength despite persecution and disabilities of various kinds.

The Council of Chalcedon Re-Examined, by V.C. Samuel

Samuel begins by offering some background: the players, the issues, the obstacles – but first, the views of most present-day scholars (and keep in mind, these are not necessarily the views of Samuel – he is presenting the generally accepted history and narrative):

Traditionally, it has been held that Nestorius who presided over the see of Constantinople from 428 to 431 was a heretic as he had taught the foul doctrine of ‘two Sons’, and that on this ground he was condemned by the Council of Ephesus in 431.

This point will be of importance as Samuel proceeds in his examination.  Nestorius was also opposed the use of the title Theotokos (Mother of God) for the Virgin Mary.

To give some flavor regarding those who taught according to Nestorius, from the Catholic Encyclopedia:

Two things are certain: first, that, whether or no they believed in the unity of the subject in the Incarnate Word, at least they explained that unity wrongly; secondly, that they used most unfortunate and misleading language when they spoke of the union of the manhood with the Godhead — language which is objectively heretical, even were the intention of its authors good.

But, demonstrating it isn’t so simple (or maybe it was just “unfortunate and misleading language”):

Nestorius, as well as Theodore, repeatedly insisted that he did not admit two Christs or two Sons, and he frequently asserted the unity of the prosopon.

To clarify the term prosopon:

The word person in its Greek form prosopon might stand for a juridical or fictitious unity; it does not necessarily imply what the word person implies to us, that is, the unity of the subject of consciousness and of all the internal and external activities.

Returning to Samuel: the extreme opposition to Nestorianism exposed another heresy, that of Eutychianism.  Eutyches was an abbot in Constantinople who could exert much influence on the emperor’s court through his relationship with the emperor’s nephew.

Eutyches maintained that Godhead and manhood were so united in Christ that after the union the manhood became absorbed in the Godhead.

He was condemned as a heretic in a synod held by Flavian, Bishop of Constantinople, in 448.  Yet Dioscorus of Alexandria, desiring to dominate the see of Constantinople, took advantage of the monk’s political support and condemned on a charge of heresy many of the orthodox prelates.  Among these were the patriarch Flavian of Constantinople and Eusebius of Dorylaeum. 

In his highhandedness Dioscorus went so far as to prevent the reading of the Tome of Leo which the pope of Rome had composed and sent to the east with the specific intention of offering a clear directive in the doctrinal dispute.

These charges were accepted at Chalcedon in 451.  Eutyches was condemned and Dioscorus was deposed. 

But the ‘monophysite’ party in Egypt, Syria and elsewhere refused to accept the council, and organized itself against the Church and continues to this day holding to varying shades of ‘heretical’ ideas.

And this presents the traditional description and understanding of the controversy.  I can say that to the extent I have heard it discussed, this conforms to what I have heard (albeit, not in the most scholarly of circles – which is why I am going through this book).

Yet, some modification of this narrative has already taken place – and it can be understood given the great complexity presented by Samuel.  For example, following the discovery and subsequent publication of Nestorius’ work, Bazaar of Heraclides, the theology of the Antiochene school which Nestorius represented has received an appreciative evaluation by a number of scholars.

While the Nestorian cause has received some newfound enthusiastic support, nothing comparable has been demonstrated to the opponents of Chalcedon – although Samuel notes some change.  For example, regarding the teaching of Eutyches, it is admitted by some that the widely held notion of his teaching is the creation of others.  Just as one example offered by Samuel:

Referring to the condemnation of Eutyches on the ground that he did not accept the formula of ‘two natures,’ Jalland observes that ‘Flavian had exceeded his authority in demanding subscription to a formula for which as yet no ecumenical sanction could be claimed’ and that therefore Flavian ‘was guilty of undue haste.’

As the Christological position had not yet been fully developed, Eutyches should not have been considered a heretic.  Dioscorus is considered orthodox as well, albeit again by a small contingent.  Regarding the Second Council of Ephesus (449) and its charge against Dioscorus, it is suggested that most of the evidence surrounding the record is from prejudiced sources.

Many other scholars are cited, offering that those who taught against Chalcedon were not teachers of heresy.  Andre de Halleux writes that some critics conserved all principles needed for a sound Christology. 

Taking these findings seriously, it is possible to say that the council of Chalcedon and the division of the church in the east were much more complex than is usually acknowledged by writers of a pro-Chalcedonian persuasion.

But Samuel is not finished with his preliminaries.  Dioscorus, for example, held that Chalcedon contradicted the established tradition of the Church, that it did not take sufficient note of the theological position adopted by the Council of Ephesus in 431.  Samuel asks: “Were they right in making this point?”

Which brings us to the Antiochene and Alexandrine 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.

The synod in Constantinople in 448 condemned Eutyches as a heretic strictly based on the Antiochene interpretation; the council in 449 expressed the Alexandrine reaction.

The council of Chalcedon, without even examining the issue involved in the conflict, ratified the decision of the synod of 448, declaring the council of 449 unworthy even to be noted in the annals of the Church’s history.

The rehabilitation of Eutyches in the 449 council was deemed indefensible – he was confirmed a heretic.  Samuel claims that Leo’s Tome showed no understanding of the conflict between the Alexandrine and Antiochene sides.  And if Eutyches is not a heretic, then Chalcedon must be looked at anew – paying more attention to its critics without making the simplistic assumption that these critics are all wrong.


Samuel offers in summary the following facts about the Council of Chalcedon:

·         It abrogated the decisions of the second council of Ephesus without ever examining them against the background of their theological assumptions.

·         It proceeded from the beginning by considering Eutyches a confirmed heretic.

·         It exonerated Flavian of Constantinople and Eusebius of Dorylaeum, the president of the synod of 448 and the accuser of Eutyches respectively, without looking into the ground of their condemnation by the council of 449

·         It ratified a sentence of deposition passed against patriarch Dioscorus of Alexandria by a section of the delegates, specifying no definite charge against him.

·         It adopted a definition of the faith with the phrase ‘in two natures’ in the face of a determined opposition from a large majority of the council’s delegates.

·         It acquitted Thodoret of Cyrus and Ibas of Edessa, both of whom highly controversial figures, without examining whether there was any ground at all for the charges leveled against them

If Samuel is half right, his views deserve a legitimate hearing by those who suggest heresy against the Oriental Orthodox Churches for not having accepted the determinations of this council, specifically the Christological determination.


On the use of the term ‘monophysite,’ meaning ‘one nature’ or ‘single nature’ and used to describe those churches that did not accept Chalcedon Samuel writes that this is not an appropriate description of the understanding of these churches:

The fact therefore is that the use of the term cannot be admitted even as a convenient label with reference to the eastern churches which have refused to acknowledge the authority of Chalcedon without showing on the strength of evidence that they hold this view [of one nature].

Samuel will use the term ‘non-Chalcedonian’ rather than monophysite.  I offer an earlier post where I examine this term and the almost imperceptible difference in how the two natures of Christ are described by the Chalcedonian and non-Chalcedonian churches here.  To be clear, both see two natures; the difficulty comes in disagreeing about how to phrase something that, frankly, none of us – even the most learned – can truly comprehend.

Two additional thoughts:

I have heard it suggested by proponents of the Eastern Orthodox Church, and find the suggestion quite appropriate, that the best way to work toward reuniting the Church is to revisit the historic councils one by one and incorporate knowledge that has come to light since the time of each individual council.  In this case, Samuel must be taken seriously.

I have heard elsewhere (and have written on this) that the churches which did not accept Chalcedon (today labeled Oriental Orthodox) did not accept it because the language was not clear or precise.  These churches did accept the subsequent councils that better clarified the nature of Christ.  I don’t know if this is consistent with what Samuel will offer, but that is my current understanding.


  1. Sounds like one side characterized the other sides claims incorrectly. Both claim to believe in 2 natures, but my explain it differently. So the one accuses the other and uses political power against them. Sad.

    Reminds me of a current disagreement over biblical inerrancy. I respect both sides. Bill Roach who associates with Norman Geisler claims that Daniel Wallace (an NT professor at Dallas Seminary) rejects inerrancy. Wallace claims he does believe in it. The difference is Roach and Geisler come to the belief through some process of deduction while Wallace uses an inductive method. I have raised the issue with Roach, but have yet to receive a response.

    Libertarian Theory Of Criminality:

  2. Both the Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches have hammered out Christological Statements of Agreement with the Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria. The dispute strikes me as largely semantic.

    1. So far it strikes me as semantic also, or a misunderstanding of the meaning of very nuanced terms and phrases in the fifth century - yet one which neither side is willing to let go of.

      I recognize such joint statements, but for reconciliation (for example, for a member of the Coptic Church to be offered communion in any and every Chalcedonian Orthodox Church), some form of agreement on the meaning of Chalcedon and the value of the subsequent councils in clarifying Chalcedon will have to be reached.

  3. what does it matter now, except for discussions, since in the end ,Christ will JUDGE the 7 churches FIRST , then it WILL matter. imo

    1. Are you suggesting that there is no point for Christians to attempt to understand and work through doctrinal disagreements?