The Council of Chalcedon concludes a number of key Christological debates taking place within the Early Church. We could say that four significant issues concerning the person of Christ are clarified: 1) Christ’s full deity is affirmed, rebuking Arius 2) Christ’s full humanity is affirmed, rebuking Apollinarius 3) Christ is one person, rebuking Nestorius and 4) Christ’s two natures (divine and human) remain distinct, rather than blurred together, refuting Eutyches.
The Council follows on from Leo’s Tome, condemning Eutyches. The Council of Ephesus in 449 did not take any positive notice of Leo’s Tome, and in fact rejected his standpoint. Later however, the Emperor’s successor favoured Leo’s approach, and so this council took place in 451, reserving the decisions of Ephesus yet condemning Eutyches. Leo’s writings were read and approved, which was concluded by a revised confession of faith in order to unify the Empire, symbolising the clarified Orthodox doctrine and tradition of the Church. This is known as the Chalcedonian Definition. The definition affirms that Christ is ‘truly God… perfect in Godhead.. perfect in manhood.. begotten of the Father before the ages..born of the Virgin Mary’ with ‘the deity and humanity..not parted or divided into two persons but.. one person and one being.’ The ‘Lord Jesus Christ’ is ‘made known in two natures without confusion, without change, without division, without separation.’
As J.F Bethune-Baker writes, ‘in this definition the Church at length pronounced a final verdict on both extremes of Christological opinion, clearly repudiating Apollinarian, Nestorian and Eutychian teaching’ stating the relationship between the two natures in one Person is more fully expressed in the statements of both Cyril and Leo, to which, by recognition on this occasion of the Council, conciliar authority was given. The Council’s definition, along-with the writings of both Cyril and Leo affirm that the ‘temporal nativity in no way detracted from the divine and eternal nativity, and added nothing to it, but was solely concerned with the restoration if man and the need for the assumption of our nature by one whom sin could not stain nor death keep in his hold.’ In other words, the two natures are not confused, and do not affect each other. The fact Christ is born of the Theotokos for our salvation does not affect the fact He also proceeds from the Father, and is ‘eternally the same’ as is affirmed in the Divine Liturgy.
Richard Price and Mary Whitby note that by the time the Council was summoned by the Emperor Marcian, all were aware that the questions of the nature of Christian Orthodoxy, and the interpretation of this Tradition, were of critical importance at the time. All were in agreement that there was indeed one true Christian Tradition (from which deviation led to heresy) however what was not yet agreed on was what the Tradition should include. The authority of Scripture, as well as of the Nicene Creed and Cyril’s writings, were recognised and respected, however questions such as how one interprets the Nicene Creed, or to what extent Cyril’s writings (particularly his third letter to Nestorius) were authoritative, were at the forefront of the Holy Council. The authority of Nicaea was recognised by all in attendance, although the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed, a revised version of Nicaea’s definition of faith introduced by imperial commissioners as a symbol of Orthodoxy, was heavily questioned. In fact, there is little indication this Creed of 381 would have been widely known and accepted by this stage, however generally the Bishops of Chalcedon emphatically accept it. ‘This is the Faith of all… this is the Faith of the Orthodox.. We all believe accordingly,’ the Bishops affirmed, amidst controversy and uncertainty among the Egyptian and Roman groups in particular.
As the Chalcedonian definition ‘was the result of a series of laborious compromises between the opposing parties’ the text initially presented at the Council used the terms of 433 ‘ἐκ δύο φύσεων’ (from two natures) which the Monophysites were prepared to accept, as it allowed them to simultaneously say ‘one nature after the union.’ The use of ‘two natures’ was balanced by the insistence on the unity of Christ; with the repeated expression ‘τὸν αὐτὸν’ (the same) intentionally underlining the unity of the subject of Christ, in all actions and places. The expression ‘in two natures’ (although not used by Cyril, was accepted in Antioch and the West) fundamentally constructed a clear distinction between φύσις and ὑπόστασις which had been lacking in earlier Christological discussion, thus needing to be clarified.
The Council of Chalcedon therefore acted as a bridge - between the culmination and clarification of the Early Church’ vital Christological questions - and a new beginning giving way to Christian theologians being able to use proper, approved terms when designating both the unity and duality in Christ.
Baker J.F 1942, An Introduction to the Early History of Christian Doctrine. Methuen, London.
Lane T, The Council of Chalcedon. Accessed from from: http://www.christianitytoday.com/history/issues/issue-28/461-council-of-chalcedon.html.
Meyendorff J 1975, Christ in Eastern Christian Thought. SVS, New York.
Price & Whitby 2009, Chalcedon in Context: Church Councils 400-700. LUP, Liverpool.