Peter’s confession that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God, is a turning point in the Gospel narratives (Matt. 16:16). Following the confession, we read, “From that time Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised” (Matt. 16:21). Peter’s response to these words indicates that his understanding of what it meant for Jesus to be the Messiah was incorrect. Jesus leaves no doubt that the Messiah must suffer and die and then rise from the dead.
What was the question that elicited Peter’s confession? Jesus had asked His disciples, “Who do you say that I am?” (Matt. 16:15). This is the question that every reader of the Gospels must answer. It is the question with which the early church was forced to wrestle for several centuries. As Christians sought to teach their children and new converts, this question would arise. As Christians sought to respond to those who rejected their teaching, this question would arise.
But why did the church wrestle with this question for so many centuries? Peter’s response likely took less than five seconds. The challenge arose because of the nature of what is revealed in the New Testament. When we read the Gospels, we find Jesus of Nazareth saying and doing things that only God can say or do. He forgives sin, for example (Mark 2:10). When we read the Apostolic writings, we find them describing Him in ways that can only be used to describe God. Paul tells us that all things were created by Him (Col. 1:16). John says He is God (John 1:1, 14). Yet, at the same time and in the same writings, we find Jesus of Nazareth saying and doing things that only a man can say or do. He grows weary (John 4:6). Most significantly, He died (Rom. 8:34).
When we read what the New Testament reveals about Jesus Christ, we are inevitably forced to answer basic metaphysical questions. Metaphysics investigates the nature of being, reality, and existence. If we say that Jesus is God, we are saying something about His being. The same is true if we say that Jesus is a man. Herein lies the difficulty. The being of God is very different from the being of man. The attributes of deity differ from the attributes of humanity, and not in a merely quantitative way. God isn’t just like us, only bigger and stronger. God is self-existent; man is not. God is eternal; man is not. God is a necessary being; man is a contingent being. And so on. Given the nature of the biblical revelation, the church was forced to ask, What kind of being is Jesus? This is what took centuries to answer.
The history of early Christological heresy is essentially a history of incorrect answers to the metaphysical question. The problem encountered in these answers the church rejected is that they do not take into account all of the biblical revelation. Ebionites, for example, “solved” the problem by denying that Christ is God. Docetism “solved” the problem by denying that Christ’s human body was real. The most significant early Christological heresy was Arianism and its variants. Arianism denied that the Son has the same nature as the Father. The Arians argued that the Son is a different kind of being than the Father or a human being. They said the Son is a being somewhere between the Father, who is true God, and human beings. The Arians argued that the Son is a creature, and there was a time when He was not. The Arian controversy spanned the bulk of the fourth century. Two ecumenical councils, the Council of Nicaea in 325 and the Council of Constantinople in 381, dealt with it. One important result was the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed (usually referred to simply as the Nicene Creed). The second section of this Creed affirms the following of Jesus Christ:
[We believe] in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only begotten of the Father before all worlds; God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God; begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father, by whom all things were made. Who, for us men and for our salvation, came down from heaven, and was incarnate by the Holy Spirit of the virgin Mary, and was made man; and was crucified also for us under Pontius Pilate; He suffered and was buried; and the third day He rose again, according to the Scriptures; and ascended into heaven, and sitteth on the right hand of the Father and He shall come again, with glory, to judge the quick and the dead; whose kingdom shall have no end.
When the issue of Christ’s true deity was settled, the next series of controversies were focused on how He can be both God and man. Apollinaris spoke of Christ as a “middle-being,” something of a mixture of deity and humanity. His view was rejected. Another attempt to answer the question has been termed the “Two Sons” doctrine. This teaching, associated with Diodore of Tarsus and Theodore of Mopsuestia, claims that the Son of God and the Son of Mary are two distinct subjects. The Son of God is the subject in all of the places where we see Jesus saying and doing things only God can say or do. The Son of Mary is the subject in all of those places where we see Jesus saying and doing things only a man can do. Obviously, this leads to some serious biblical and theological problems, the most serious of which is the inability of proponents to identify the Son of Mary with the Son of God.
One of Theodore’s students was a man named Nestorius, who became archbishop of Constantinople in the AD 428. Following in the footsteps of his teacher, he, too, taught what amounted to a “Two Sons” doctrine. His teaching caught the attention of Cyril, the bishop of Alexandria, and a huge controversy resulted. Cyril wrote several letters to Nestorius attempting to correct his views, but ultimately another council had to be convened. The Council of Ephesus met in AD 431, and Nestorius was condemned as a heretic. Matters were not completely settled, however, and twenty years later another council was convened in the small city of Chalcedon.
The Council of Chalcedon (AD 451) is a landmark in the history of theology in the same way that the Council of Nicaea was a landmark. The definition produced by the council has been the standard of orthodox Christology ever since, not only in the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches but in the Protestant churches as well. It was at this council that the church established a way of talking about the being of Christ that took into account all of the biblical revelation. It is imperative, therefore, that Christians read and understand the Chalcedonian Definition.
If a person does an online search for “The Definition of Chalcedon,” nine out of ten results, perhaps more, will be links to pages that contain a single paragraph. This paragraph contains the theological summation of the Christological teaching of the council, but it is important to understand that this paragraph is the penultimate paragraph in a significantly longer document and must be read and understood in its larger context. Earlier paragraphs, for example, reaffirm the teaching of the first three ecumenical councils: Nicaea, Constantinople, and Ephesus. Most significantly, however, the council makes the point that it has accepted certain letters written by Cyril of Alexandria as well as the Tome of Leo the Great as expressing the proper understanding of the Christological teaching of the Nicene Creed. Essentially, the council of Chalcedon is saying that their theological summation is just that—a summary. For those who want to read a fuller explanation, they point them to Cyril’s second and third letters to Nestorius and his letter to John of Antioch as well as to Leo’s letter to Flavian. Those letters provide the necessary theological context for correctly interpreting the Definition of Chalcedon.
What, then, is the Christological teaching of the Council of Chalcedon? The famous paragraph reads as follows:
So, following the saintly fathers, we all with one voice teach the confession of one and the same Son, our Lord Jesus Christ: the same perfect in divinity and perfect in humanity, the same truly God and truly man, of a rational soul and a body; consubstantial with the Father as regards his divinity, and the same consubstantial with us as regards his humanity; like us in all respects except for sin; begotten before the ages from the Father as regards his divinity, and in the last days the same for us and for our salvation from Mary, the virgin God-bearer as regards his humanity; one and the same Christ, Son, Lord, only-begotten, acknowledged in two natures which undergo no confusion, no change, no division, no separation; at no point was the difference between the natures taken away through the union, but rather the property of both natures is preserved and comes together into a single person and a single subsistent being; he is not parted or divided into two persons, but is one and the same only-begotten Son, God, Word, Lord Jesus Christ, just as the prophets taught from the beginning about him, and as the Lord Jesus Christ himself instructed us, and as the creed of the fathers handed it down to us.
The major points of this paragraph can be set forth as follows:
- Jesus Christ is a single person. The most striking thing in this paragraph is the repeated use of the phrase “one and the same” and the multiple uses of “the same.” The Chalcedonian Definition is driving home the point that in the Gospels, there is only one Jesus who says and does everything attributed to Him. The Son of Mary is “one and the same” as the Son of God. There are not two Sons. Here the Definition of Chalcedon is also following the second article of the Nicene Creed, in which there is a single subject of every verb in that section.
- Jesus Christ is perfect in divinity and perfect in humanity. Here the council is answering the metaphysical question: Jesus is “truly God and truly man.” Jesus is consubstantial (homoousios) with the Father regarding His deity, and He is consubstantial (homoousios) with us regarding His humanity. He is like us in every way apart from sin because He does not have a fallen human nature. As the eternal Son, the second person of the Trinity, He is “begotten before the ages from the Father” (eternal generation). He is begotten from Mary in time regarding His humanity (the miraculous virginal conception). This is why Mary can be rightly called “God-bearer” (theotokos). The council affirms the use of this word as a way of affirming that the one whom Mary bore in her womb was God incarnate.
- The two natures of Christ are united without confusion or change. This statement rules out certain teachings of Apollinaris and Eutyches. It emphasizes the point that the two natures (divine and human) are united in the one person (hypostasis) of the Son without being blended or mixed in any way. Such blending or mixture would result in a third kind of being, one that is neither truly divine nor truly human.
- The two natures of Christ are united without division or separation. The remaining section of this clause condemns Nestorianism and any kind of “Two Sons” doctrine. The divine and human natures are permanently united in one person. This doctrine is referred to as the doctrine of the “hypostatic union” because the two natures are united in the one person (hypostasis) of the Son.
- The property of both natures is preserved. Even after the union, each nature retains its proper metaphysical attributes. The divine nature is not changed or altered in the hypostatic union, and the created human body and soul are not turned into something else by virtue of being united to the divine nature. The divine nature does not take on or acquire the attributes of created being, and the human nature does not take on or acquire the attributes of the Creator.
The Chalcedonian Definition provides the theological explanation for the biblical revelation. How can the Bible portray the one Lord Jesus saying and doing things that only God can say and do while at the same time portraying Him as saying and doing things that only a man can do? It is because of the hypostatic union. The second person of the Trinity, the Son, is God, and thus all divine attributes are properly predicated of Him. He did not cease to be God in the incarnation, and therefore, all divine attributes can continue to be properly predicated of Him. In the incarnation, the Son assumes an unfallen, true human nature, a true human body and soul, with all of the attributes proper to a true human nature. Since it is His human nature, everything true of it can also be properly predicated of the one person to whom it belongs. It is important to understand what is not being said here. The attributes of the human nature cannot be predicated of the divine nature, and the attributes of the divine nature cannot be predicated of the human nature, but the attributes of both natures can be predicated of the one person to whom they belong.
After Chalcedon, more questions arose, and more questions continue to arise today, but Chalcedon has proven to be a necessary and important starting point for all who have followed. The council did not answer every possible question in its definition, but it provided boundaries within which those questions can be examined without falling into heresy. As Christians, we owe a debt of thanks to our brothers in Christ who have gone before and whose gifts were used by God to help the church find its way through dangerous theological controversy. Because of the centuries of work they did, we do not have to reinvent the theological wheel every generation.