Thursday, January 19, 2023

Agreement or Power?

…in its final form [the Chalcedonian definition of the faith] was so framed as to enable the delegates belonging to the three traditions then existing in the Church, namely the Alexandrine, the Antiochene, and the western, to interpret it in different ways.

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

Two items bearing on the faith were considered and approved at Chalcedon.  First, the Tome of Leo was declared a document of the faith.  Second, it offered a definition of the faith.  It is this second point that is the subject of the quote above.

Samuel reminds of the political actions behind the council – the emperor, via his wife, wished the eastern Church to be unified under Constantinople.  Further, while supporting Rome, at the same time not allowing Rome to be seen as superior to Constantinople.

Hence, an understanding of Samuel’s statement: the purpose of the council was as much or more political as it was doctrinal.  An agreement must be reached, even if, once again, the terminology could be understood differently by the different traditions.  As long as agreement was reached, authority would move toward Constantinople and away from Alexandria.  And this would satisfy the desire of the emperor.

To be clear, this disagreement was not if Jesus was God or man; it was on the point of how, precisely, to understand and phrase that He was both God and man.

After some efforts, the bishops were ordered to come forward, and while over the Gospel that was placed in the middle, say they affirmed the faith in conformity with Nicaea, the creed of Constantinople, and the Tome of Leo.  One hundred fifty-eight men did so, each offering a short speech.  Thereafter, the remainder were asked to confirm by acclamation, and it was offered.

In their statement, the Illyrian bishops stated that – after having clarifying discussions with the Roman legates – the Tome offered nothing beyond that which was agreed in the earlier councils.  It was on this basis that they affirmed the Tome.  But here, again, is the problem.  The earlier councils were understood differently by different bishops.  Why wouldn’t this be?  Hence, doctrinally nothing was truly resolved.

In any case, thereafter having signed the Tome, the five who were condemned with Dioscorus were readmitted to the synod. 

What of the bishops of Egypt?  Seeing Dioscorus condemned, they realized their position on return to Egypt would be embarrassingly delicate.  The decision would not be accepted when the news reached home.  They signed a petition, asking to be free of involvement.  The petition included a statement of faith, did not condemn Eutyches, and it did not express acceptance of the Tome.

After much pressure, they did condemn Eutyches, but declared that they could not subscribe to the Tome without their archbishop…who was condemned!  The pressure grew greater, with the Egyptian bishops begging for mercy: “We shall be killed when we return to our country.”  “Be martyrs for the faith,” the council retorted.

The commissioners, secular officials of the Byzantine state, ordered the Egyptian bishops hold off on signing until an archbishop was appointed.  The Roman legate was not satisfied with this, demanding that the bishops could leave the city only after signing.  The intent was clear: acceptance of the Tome of Leo was required if one was to be considered a member in the Church.  The bishops from Egypt made it clear that the church in their country was not likely to accept the document.

The rest having accepted the Tome, now the eastern bishops presented their statement.  It did not conform to the Tome, nor did it refer to the Tome.  They apparently thought that, having accepted the Tome, the same courtesy would be extended to them. 

How to interpret this?  Did the eastern bishops accept the Tome or didn’t they?  They threatened to depart if their definition was not also accepted.  The commissioners, laymen and representatives of the emperor, were baffled.  Now, the question was framed differently – in a manner that would pit the view of Dioscorus against that of Leo.  When the question was put this way, and as Dioscorus had already been condemned by those same bishops, the reply came back “As Leo, so we believe…”

This episode raises and reconfirms a point that has seemed clear to me from the first time I looked into this council and the issue of how, precisely, to understand the two natures.  The same bishops who condemned Dioscorus accepted that they must then choose Leo’s Tome or they would believe as Dioscorus did.  How close must the hair-splitting be for this to have been (and continues to be) the case?

Further, per Samuel, the statement read by the commissioners was a distortion of the testimony of Dioscorus.  Fourteen days before this incident, when Dioscorus was on trial, he stated unequivocally that there was a union of two natures, and that the union did not bring about confusion, change, division, and mixture.  In other words, he stated the Chalcedonian definition, as follows: 

He is one and the same Christ, Son, Lord, and Only Begotten, who is made known in two natures (physeis) united unconfusedly, unchangeably, indivisibly, inseparably.

Was the definition important to the emperor, or was the shift in power to Constantinople and away from Alexandria important?  Was the definition important to the legates from Rome, or was the raising of Rome important?

In any case, the eastern critics of the council saw a betrayal of the already established norm of the faith.  “In two natures,” or “from two natures.”  Faced with this challenge, the supporters of Chalcedon made the case that the two phrases meant the same thing.  Per Samuel:

If this was the truth, there was no real difference between the ‘from two natures’ of Dioscorus and the ‘in two natures’ of the council, and with a little bit of patience on the part of the triumphant party the division could have been avoided.

But there were bigger fish to fry.  From the perspective of the emperor, the purpose of the council was to bring the entire Church in the east under the leadership of Constantinople.  They were keen to bring down Alexandria from its high position.  It helped that the council had no leaders sympathetic to the Alexandrine fathers. 

While Samuel will deal with the particulars of the Chalcedonian definition later, for now he offers that both sides claimed continuity with the tradition of the Church and the earlier councils.  Recall that previous definitions were worded loosely enough that all sides could accept these and still understand these differently – in the way taught locally, predominantly meaning Alexandria or Antioch.

In other words, the council really solved nothing in terms of agreeing on the proper understanding of the faith.  It did, however, improve the situation about where the centers of power would be held in Christendom.


There were men in the east who had been deeply rooted in the teaching of the Alexandrine fathers, who found the definition inadequate to conserve the doctrinal heritage of the Church, and the councils treatment of persons – the condemnation of Dioscorus on the one hand, and the exoneration of Theodoret of Cyrus and Ibas of Edessa – thoroughly indefensible.  They opposed the council with a determination which no power on earth could check.

And which has remained, for almost 1600 years, a source of division.


I have recently come across a twenty-minute video, Eastern Orthodox vs Oriental Orthodox - What's the Difference?  It is an excellent summary of the events leading up to the split and the situation since.


  1. Fascinating and thoughtful, not to mention upsetting, given the dominance of political considerations. What road, if any, do you see before the affected Churches if some fraternal unity is possible? And, in these vexing, Satanic times, surely a fraternal united front seems desirable, no? I am still optimistic that the parties involved may come to see that their disagreements are, I believe, mostly verbal, and not dogmatic. Much is at stake as Christianity continues to be under global assault. Maybe, as a recent German philosopher famously stipulated, "Only a god can save us."

    1. "What road, if any, do you see before the affected Churches if some fraternal unity is possible?"

      Necessity will drive this. The union will be among those traditions that hold to some sense of natural law ethics and Biblical understanding on the many cultural issues of today.

      Now, how far down the road of destruction must we travel before the various denominations that hold to such traditional cultural views decide that the bigger fight is the cultural one as opposed to debates about credo vs pedo baptism.

  2. Christianity has been political and sectarian and its hierarchs preoccupied with statist concerns for a very long time. Here in the post-Christian era, I look back on all these synods and disputes like I do the Napoleonic wars or the Crimean war, or World Wars 1 and 2. What was the point of it all?

    As Christianity continues its retreat from Western culture, and Western culture descends into anarcho-tyranny, the old debates over hair-splitting conceptions of the Holy Trinity seem tragically quaint and pointless. But everyone is a captive of their own time and place. The hierarchs at the time of Chalcedon surely could not foresee the soon-to-come Arabic Muslim tsunami that would render them irrelevant.