Thursday, December 1, 2022

Reunion … Sort of ….

The removal of Nestorius did not solve the problem.

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

Condemning and removing Nestorius at the Council of Ephesus for holding to the ‘Word-man’ Christology of Antioch as opposed to the ‘Word-flesh’ Christology of Alexandria did not solve the dispute.  The emperor would exert himself to help establish peace.

Allow me a brief aside.  There are those who see Christianity under the emperor as an inherently negative development for the faith and for the Church.  I find it difficult to agree with such a view.

First of all – very pragmatically – the persecutions ended.  Christians today don’t even display the courage to hold Easter service for fear of the state.  Imagine the persecuted and fearful life for Christians before Constantine (or in many parts of the world today), then complain about the role of the emperor in the lives of Christians at the time.

Second, the several councils.  To my understanding, all were called by the emperor.  In terms of doctrine, where would the Church be today if not for these first several councils?  Yes, today we see fragmentation.  Imagine the fragmentation if those earliest disputes were not resolved in some reasonable manner.  Certainly, politics played a role in the emperor’s actions.  But if we cannot accept that the councils were acting under the Holy Spirit we might as well drop the entire game.

Returning to Samuel: the emperor’s efforts to resolve the issues resulted in John of Antioch writing to Cyril of Alexandria, including a profession of faith.  Cyril replied with his famous letter, Laetentur Caeli, incorporating in it a passage from John’s confession stressing the unity of Christ’s person and the unconfused continuance of the divine and human.

It said that ‘our Lord Jesus Christ’ was at once ‘true God and true man’…

There were three main objections raised by the Antiochenes, not fully resolved, and, therefore, the reunion not fully embraced: first, that Cyril’s theological positions as reflected in the anathemas were heretical; second, that Nestorius was not a heretic; and third, that the Council of Ephesus was heretical.

There was one sentence in John’s letter that would have far-reaching consequences – a sentence worded in a way that would allow different individuals with different understandings to accept it, and, therefore, to allow John to get past the difficulties he had with the decisions of the council.  It is wordy, so perhaps read it a couple of times:

‘And with regard to the evangelistic and apostolic sayings concerning the Lord, we know that theologians make some common, as relating to one person, and distinguishing others, as relating to two natures, interpreting the God-befitting ones to be of the Godhead of Christ, and the lowly ones of his humanity.’

This sentence was intended to mitigate the difficulties of the Antiochenes while also not contradicting Cyril.  Theologians distinguish matters pertaining to the Lord – a very guarded statement.  It really doesn’t say anything about Christ existing in different centers of being and activity, merely that Christ’s actions can be differentiated in these ways.

Here it will be worthwhile to attempt to describe the two positions.  And I emphasize the word “attempt.”  I have written on the two positions coming out of Chalcedon before, for example, here.  Here follows Samuel’s explanation of the split as it came out of Ephesus:

Alexandrine (Word-flesh):

God the Son, affirmed the Alexandrines, became incarnate from the Virgin by the Holy Spirit.  In the incarnation he united to himself real and perfect manhood endowed with its own rational soul.  In this way God the Son took upon himself an incarnate state, in which Godhead and manhood converged into one person, our Lord Jesus Christ.

The two natures of Godhead and manhood became united in him, without either of them changing into the other or together forming a tertium quid [a third “something”].

This one person was the Christ in the gospels, but we can say of him that some of the words and deeds were divine and others were human.

The strength of this position lay in its emphasis on Christ’s unity.

The union was “of or from two natures,” but in the union there was no change or reduction; the union was inward and real – hypostatic – therefore excluding the idea that Jesus was merely a man who lived in perfect communion with God.  Christ was the incarnate nature of God the Word; He was at once perfect God and perfect man.

…he should not be spoken of as ‘two natures after the union,’ or that he existed ‘in two natures’ because that would imply that the union was something external, so that Christ was only a person similar to one of the saints or prophets.

Antiochene (Word-man):

The Antiochenes, on the other hand, clearly maintained that Christ was ‘two natures after the union’ as a central idea in their Christology.  At the same time, they did not admit that Christ was only like a saint or a prophet.

They also accepted that there was a union of the two natures, but didn’t accept the Alexandrine interpretation of the union.  Instead of seeing the union as hypostasis, the Antiochenes saw prosopon (the form in which the hypostasis appears).

Samuel suggests that the Antiochenes may have seen the words hypostatic union and prosopic union as synonyms.  It is not difficult to understand how this could be true, or at least convenient.  See the following:

Hypostasis is the underlying state or underlying substance and is the fundamental reality that supports all else.

Hypostatic union ("sediment, foundation, substance, subsistence") is a technical term in Christian theology employed in mainstream Christology to describe the union of Christ's humanity and divinity in one hypostasis, or individual existence.

Christ’s humanity and divinity are in one hypostasis (individual existence).

The term prosopon is most commonly used for the self-manifestation of an individual hypostasis. Prosopon is the form in which hypostasis appears.

Prosopon is the form in which the one hypostasis (individual) appears.

Nothing at all confusing about this.

Returning to the historical narrative:

The tension between the two sides was aggravated by the fact that the reunion itself was not taken by them in an agreed sense.

The Alexandrines and Cyril believed that the Antiochenes accepted the council of 431 unconditionally.  Theodoret of Cyrus, an Antiochene, believed that reunion of 433 cancelled all decisions of the council.  Samuel suggests that the Antiochenes were more to blame for this misunderstanding.

As long as Cyril and John were alive, however, there remained peace between the two sides.  John died in 442, appointing his nephew, Domnus, as successor.  Domnus is described as “a characterless weakling,” controlled completely by Theodoret – who was anti-Alexandrine and anti-Cyrilline.  Theodoret would go so far as to publish in 447 his Eranistes, a book that distorted and ridiculed the teaching of the Alexandrine fathers.


So much for the reunion.  But before getting to Chalcedon, there is another episode in setting the stage.  With this, we approach the condemnation of Eutyches in the Synod of Constantinople in 448.  Eutyches was not a theologian but a reasonably intelligent monk.  In the earlier council, he was on the “right” side by condemning Nestorius.  He would find himself on the wrong side in this evolving discussion of the precise nature of Christ – more specifically, on the manner in which the human and divine are both in Christ.

But this will be a story deserving of its own post.


  1. This is excellent….I have struggled getting insight on the early Church evolution and would love some recommendations on resources

  2. "First of all – very pragmatically – the persecutions ended. Christians today don’t even display the courage to hold Easter service for fear of the state."

    I've wondered many times over the past couple of years if we wouldn't have exhibited so much fear of the state if we were still openly persecuted.

    I think, overall, that your point is correct, but I think Christianity "getting in bed" with the state so early on may have encouraged the later statism we see so much of.

    1. I think there is truth in this. For example, how much money, directly or indirectly, goes from the state to Christian organizations?

  3. Fun fact "prosopon" means "face". Never seen it used in such a technical way.

    Several different words are used to communicate appearance.