Tuesday, December 27, 2022

The Road to Chalcedon: A Review

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.

Dioscorus of Alexandria, desiring to dominate the see of Constantinople, took advantage of Eutyches’ tremendous support in the city and region and in 449 condemned as heretics many of those who condemned Eutyches.  Among these were the patriarch Flavian of Constantinople and Eusebius of Dorylaeum. 

At Chalcedon in 451, Eutyches was again condemned and Dioscorus was deposed.  The council of 448 was ratified, and the council of 449 was deemed indefensible.  Chalcedon was called in a manner that would diminish Alexandria in favor of Constantinople.  As much as it was necessary to attempt to resolve this issue of how best to describe Christ’s nature, it was, therefore, also a political council.

What is my point in all this? 

Factions, political intrigue, muscle-flexing, establishing authority.  I do not write this to suggest that the Holy Spirit was not at work in these councils.  However, I do suggest that His work still had to be performed via very imperfect humans.  And these imperfect humans – bishops and the like – carried the same flaws that we all do.

I have long struggled with the method employed by many apologists for their particular tradition of Christianity – Orthodox, Catholic, and Protestant alike.  It is the methodology of tearing down the other.  It is presented as if “ours is the one true Church.”  And Catholics, Orthodox, and Protestants all make such statements. 

In some cases, you are deemed not in Christ’s Church if you are not in my tradition.  This for Christians who accept the Trinity and have been baptized in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  This for Christians who see Christ’s death and resurrection as providing for salvation (in some manner, with some slightly different understandings). 

But we see here, in events leading up to this earliest split, that men of goodwill disagreed, and that decisions were made based on which faction controlled the council.  And where I am, therefore, most bothered, is by the claims of historical purity by many in the Eastern Orthodox – because apologists for this tradition claim the entire field (often in a proud and arrogant manner) of being truest to the early Church. 

This tradition has had, in many ways, a free ride in the West.  We all know the Catholic-Protestant divide very well: the arguments, the history, the heresies (in the view of one or the other), the corruptions, etc.

We know little of these same things when it comes to the Eastern Church.  It is for this reason that I am going through this book, and it is also for this reason that I have a book waiting on my shelf regarding medieval Byzantium.  The details of this history are unknown to me, and are relatively unknown in the West. 

This is one reason, I believe, that those who advocate for the Eastern Church are seen as successful today – the unknown doesn’t get in the way of the very good parts of the tradition.  This is not to say I am somehow against this Church or this tradition. I have found great blessing when attending an Orthodox liturgy.


Just as is true for Catholic and Protestant traditions, I suspect the Eastern Church has many warts.  And, frankly, I am tired of hearing from advocates for this Church that there are none.   But I am most tired of the arrogance – and even spite – that comes from some from within this tradition when addressing anything from any other Christian tradition.

And that is what has been bubbling under my surface.

But I do not judge any Christian tradition by the worst examples of its adherents or its practices.  Better to look at the best of its doctrines, the best of its fruits.  And in this, all traditions demonstrate examples of the love of Christ in this world.


  1. A snip from a 1986 article on the Pope John Paul II 20 page pastoral letter on St. Augustine, to commemorate the 16th centenary of Augustine's conversion to Christianity.

    “The Pope stressed the Filioque doctrine, that the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and from the Son, which has been the basis for the idea of progress in the West and is today the issue of the cultural warfare between the Russian bloc and the West. By telling theologians to study St. Augustine, the Pope has sent a pointed message to certain modern theologians who are flirting with a deal with the Russian Orthodox Church in which Western Christians would renounce the Filioque.”

  2. It would have been better if those involved would have just said, hey that wording is going too far and this other wording isn't going far enough with Bible references explaining why. Instead we get micro-definitions of Greek words, bombastic proclamations of heresy, and political power plays.

    I still get fired up about doctrinal differences. But Christ's nature and the Trinity are topics that are important but not easily defined with human language. The Bible leaves a bit of mystery to it why couldn't the Church?


  3. I haven’t commented here in a long time mainly because I feel I have nothing to add, but have learned much from you, especially on these doctrinal differences. My big takeaway is that I am glad my family tradition allowed me to be brought up in the Catholic Tradition, warts and all, to steal your excellent phrase. I thought about the Orthodox faith around this time last year, but only to run away from the warts and not to run to Orthodoxdy. You have helped me clarify that unless I see clearly Catholicism is wrong compared to Orthodox (or Coptic, or probably more far fetched for me, because of my deep family tradition as Catholic, a Protestant denomination), there is no reason to tear down Chesterston’s fence for me personally. Thank you for this, and Merry Christmas (even and especially to those who celebrate on January 7)!

    1. Thanks, Eric. I agree with your position on this topic. If we ran away from every Church tradition that had warts...well, there would be nothing left.

  4. Thanks for this. I’m 50 years old and have seen too many power moves (played some myself) in the name of orthodoxy. Today, I try to live in repentance of my past dogmatism.