Monday, February 6, 2023

The Dust Doesn’t Settle

The council of Chalcedon was adjourned after its final session on 1 November 451.  The emperor and empress were indeed gratified that at last in their day the Church was properly unified…

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

…and the leaders of the council were also pleased that its decisions were unanimously accepted by the participants.

Almost, but not quite.  There were complaints that force was used to secure signatures.  Further, several Egyptian bishops never signed the Tome and the Chalcedonian definition of the Faith. 

The emperor ratified the decisions of the council, investing these with legal status in the empire.  Anyone who disputed the decisions of the council would be punished in accordance with his position and rank: a government official would lose his status; a private citizen would be expelled from the city; a member of clergy would lose his rank and suffer other penalties.  Critics were deemed heretic.

The emperor wrote that the council did nothing more than ratify the creed of Nicea as expounded in the councils of 381 and 431.  He would continue:

The council ‘made absolutely no innovation about the apostolic faith, but in all respects … followed the teaching of Athanasius and Theophilus and Cyril.’

It was deemed that Eutyches and Dioscorus were teaching the ideas of Apollinarius, and any followers of these shall not have the right to execute a will or inherit in accord with the provisions of a will; whatever is left to them will be forfeit.  They shall not ordain bishops or priests.  Their churches will be confiscated and they shall have no assemblies or meetings.  If they meet in a house with the consent of the owner, the house will be confiscated.

They shall not write anything against the council; if they do, they shall be exiled perpetually, and their books shall be destroyed.

In case it is thought that it was just a few Egyptian bishops who were on the outs, even pope Leo refused to accept the council for a time.  His disagreement was specifically concerning the see of Constantinople (recalling the desire of the emperor to make Constantinople equal to Rome and the most powerful see in the east). 

Ultimately, the threat posed by the non-Chalcedonian bishops drove Leo to accept the doctrinal decrees of the council.  It isn’t completely clear from Samuel’s text, but it appears this acceptance excluded any reference to the issue of Constantinople.

With Rome and Constantinople now united, the lines were clearly drawn.  It wasn’t only bishops in Egypt that were opposed.  However, the weight in this disagreement was clearly in favor of the emperor and the pope.  Samuel describes the opposition in four stages, beginning in 451 and running through the seventh century and the time of Muslim conquests of Byzantine lands. 

The first stage, running from 451 to 475 was a period where the non-Chalcedonians, with no imperial backing, were suppressed and reduced to the status of negligible sects in some inaccessible corners of the empire.  The second stage, running through 518, gave the non-Chalcedonian movement time to strengthen itself.

The third stage ran from 518 to 536.  While emperor Justin I brought back an era of persecution against the opponents of the council, his nephew and successor Justinian saw need to try and work out the disagreements by negotiation.  His efforts failed, and further efforts also did not succeed.  And this marks the fourth stage, running until the Arab Muslims began their conquests.

The initial opposition, or the first stage.  Of this time, A. A. Vasilev would write:

‘The religious disturbances in Jerusalem, Alexandria, and Antioch caused by the forced introduction of the decisions of the council assumed the character of serious national revolts and were suppressed by the civil and military authorities only after much bloodshed.’

Juvenal of Jerusalem, a strong supporter of Alexandria and co-president with Dioscorus at the so-called robber council of 449, flipped in the first session of the council.  He had an objective of having his see elevated to a patriarchal rank, with jurisdiction even over Antioch – this desire necessitating his flip.  He did achieve his political objective, but upon his return to Jerusalem from Chalcedon his flock refused to accept him.

The backstory fills in the details: having seen the Tome of Leo before the council, Juvenal was convinced it contained heretical teaching – concluding that it supported the teaching of Nestorius (do you see how convoluted and confusing this issue is, yet being powerful enough to cause division?).  Juvenal would gather the monks, clergy and people, exposing the “foul doctrine,” and anathematized it.

He confirmed many in the right faith and enjoined on them all to hold communion with him no more, should he change at the council.

Which his followers obeyed upon his return….

Having as much responsibility as Dioscorus in 449, Juvenal had the moral responsibility to properly raise the issues of the council held two years earlier.  But he did not, instead succumbing to the combined power and authority of Rome and the emperor.  With his desire to elevate Jerusalem in authority, he gave in at the very first session and secured his see…and lost his flock.

Monks from Palestine, chief of whom was Theodosius, were watching this flip-flop in real time at Chalcedon.  Immediately they sent word back to Jerusalem, preparing the ground for a serious encounter.

As Juvenal was returning to Jerusalem, he was offered a choice: abjure the council, or give up the see.  He did neither, instead returning to Constantinople.  In his place Theodosius was named bishop.  His time in the position did not last long, as Juvenal would return a short time later, backed by an army.  A massacre ensued.


Similar such events occurred in Egypt, Antioch, and Syria, with one noteworthy addition: in 457, just a few years after the council, the Patriarch of Alexandria would write to the emperor, expressing the view that a new council be called to deal with the issues that led to division after Chalcedon.  While the emperor was favorable to this request, Pope Leo and Anatolius of Constantinople were opposed – the two men over the two sees that gained the most politically from Chalcedon. 

This ends the first stage of the opposition, with opponents of the council weak and scattered, repressed both militarily and politically.


  1. Christianity isn't even capable of defending itself against the proponents of same-sex marriage, mass State-sponsored immigration, and manipulating the body chemistry and physiology of healthy human beings. Astounding that such minutiae used to consume so much energy.

    1. To your last sentence, perhaps a good indication that the energy consumed was more in proportion to the political advantage desired as opposed to clarifying doctrinal hair-splitting.

      Which I think will eventually be demonstrated as regards your second point. It seems to me likely that the Church in the near future will divide not on Catholic / Orthodox / Protestant grounds, but on where different parishes and congregations fall on these cultural issues.

      In other words, the cultural issues have become much more important to the faith than differences in liturgical practice and even some of the peripheral doctrinal beliefs.