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.